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Music is the emotional life of most people – Leonard Cohen
For various reasons I don’t remember very much about my teenage years, but I remember the very first time I ever heard Leonard Cohen. It’s 1992 and I’m seventeen years old. I’m sitting in the family room of the house I grew up in and I’m watching Much Music on the TV. The Monkees, which was a part of the channels weekly line up, has just ended and I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m too lazy to change the channel. By this point in my cultural experience I am way beyond listening to top 40 music and I spend little time watching music videos. But for some reason I let the television play on.
The video that comes on the television is unlike anything I’ve seen before. It’s in black and white and artistic, with a seedy cast of characters and a background chorus of artistic but beautiful girls and there is the distinct sound of a fiddle. Not a country fiddle, but a pulsating grinding fiddle like if it came from some sort of dark French brothel from hell. At the microphone is a man unlike what I was used to seeing in music videos. His face was rough, he wasn’t handsome, and he was old. Dressed in a turtleneck and a jacket, this man had distinct class, but seemed out of his element on music television. This was the era of Kurt Cobain and Axel Rose. Who was this old man?
And then he began to sing and that gravely rough voice hit my ears for the first time.
“We’re drinking and we’re dancing and the band is really happening and the Johnny Walker wisdoms running high
And my very close companion, she’s an angel of compassion. She’s rubbing half the world against her thigh….”
The moment I began to listen I was hooked forever on Leonard Cohen. From the moment I first saw the video to Closing Time, Leonard Cohen became a cultural hero, a role model, an artistic touch point, and the symbol of cool I aspired to be, but have never been able to achieve.
Sure, most people I know probably knew who Leonard Cohen was long before I did, but I caught up quickly. Less than 24 hours after I saw the video I was at Sam the Record Man draining my bank account on every single Leonard Cohen cassette tape or album they could sell me. The Songs of Leonard Cohen, Songs of Love and Hate, I’m Your Man, Death of a Ladies Man, Various Positions, The Future, Best of Leonard Cohen…..I bought everything they had and ran home and sat for hours in my bedroom drinking up every note and lyric of this guy’s music. It was unlike anything I had ever listened to. Unlike anything anybody I knew was listening to. This was art, poetry, sex, death, guilt, war, religion, lust and hate all presented by a man with a flawed, but haunting, voice. It wasn’t for everybody but it spoke to me on more levels than I probably will ever realize. I was taken aback by the difference of his voice in the early recordings compared to the cigarette and liquor damaged tones of his later songs. I wasn’t sure what I liked better. Early Cohen? Later Cohen? It was all gold to me.
I remember that I couldn’t wait to play it for the girl I had a crush on. That’s what you do when you’re a teenager. You share the music you love with the people you love – making them mixed tapes or bringing albums to their rec rooms. I made her listen to I’m Your Man, thinking that it was sophisticated and erotic. She didn’t like it. She thought it was perverse. I really began to rethink if this girl was right for me.
But, man, you didn’t get lyrics better than this guy. They were dipped in darkness and sex….and as an often undersexed teenager the eroticism in Leonard Cohen’s music was a part of my own sexual awakening. This man from Montreal, who seemed far too cool and European to actually be Canadian, was what I thought sex was supposed to look like – dark, tragic, enigmatic and brooding. Maybe I was naïve and didn’t get sex yet. I mean, hell, I was still a virgin and terrified of girls. But I figured that somehow the secret of sex lay in Leonard Cohen’s music.
Soon I began to dress like him. Blazers and turtlenecks became part of my every day wardrobe. I learnt his songs on the guitar. I memorized his lyrics and his poetry and I bought and read Beautiful Losers – and learnt that anybody who ever says that Beautiful Losers is their favorite book of all time is a pretentious asshole. I may love Leonard Cohen, but not enough to tell you that that book is a terrible read. He was the ultimate in bohemian. The coolest of the cool. The perfect role model for a mixed up, undersexed, clinically depressed, self-alienated youth like I was. And at that time in my life, well, I couldn’t have had a better idol.
As the years went by I evolved as a man, and I really came into my own, leaving that awkward and often self-loathing young boy I was behind me. But Leonard Cohen’s music stayed with me. His lyrics are simply the best there is in modern music. When I list off my top favorite artists of all time, Leonard Cohen is always one of the five names that come immediately off of my lips. I’ve tracked down all of his lps on vinyl and sing his songs to myself during times of joy and times of sorrow. His music clings to my soul and his rough damaged voice sings in my ears. And to this day I still think he is the ultimate symbol of bohemian cool, and the older he got, the cooler he got. Nobody could do it like he did. Who, in his 70’s, could sing about sex and death and be more cutting edge than the coolest of pop stars. Only Leonard Cohen could.
I am still a man who works in the arts, puts words together and has maintained a level of bohemian eccentricness. This is the part of me that I owe to Leonard Cohen. And do you know what? Turtlenecks and blazers are still in my wardrobe. His voice still gives me shivers and his music is still so important to me. Leonard Cohen is still, and will forever be, a hero and a role model and the symbol of cool I’ll always archive to be.
But with that said, I really wish people would stop doing terrible covers of Halleluiah. Just because you can sing it, doesn’t mean you should.
So long Mr. Cohen. It’s time that we began to laugh and cry and cry and laugh about it all again.
When Hannah Montana made its debut on the Disney Channel in 2006, it didn’t matter who you were or if it was your thing or not. You couldn’t escape the show. Both a commercial and marketing success which crossed over from television to music to film, Hannah Montana was everywhere. Starring Miley Cyrus, the show about a Southern girl living in Hollywood with a secret life as apop star became one of the first massive pop culture sensations of the 21st Century. Kids loved it, adults love it, and Miley Cyrus started her journey in becoming a mega-star.
But in the few times I saw the show, there was one voice that stood out to me the most. Frequent guest star Romi Dames lit up the screen each time she appeared as snobby rich girl Traci Van Horn. With an over the top nasally voice with tons of vibrato, Romi had fantastic comic timing and created a character that stuck in my memory, despite the fact that I was not amongst the show’s viewer demographic. It was a voice that was so funny and so original, that I just couldn’t get it out of my head
Moving to the United States when she was twelve years old, Romi had already gotten stuck on theater while performing in Japan. Living in Seattle, Washington, Romi entered American television as an assistant to Bill Nye, The Science Guy’s science show for kids that became a surprise blockbuster for PBS in the early 90’s. Romi continued to act while attending the University of Washington, but she finally became a familiar face on the pop culture radar when she brought Traci Van Horn to life in the fifth episode of Hannah Montana. Although she was originally hired for only one episode, the character proved so popular with both writers and viewers that Romi was brought back for an additional thirteen episodes between 2006 and 2009.
As seen with the creation of Traci Van Horn, Romi has a gift for creating unique voice for characters, and in recent years Romi has become a popular voice actress working on series such as Phineas and Ferb, Winx Club and Star Darlings. Most recently Romi has revealed that in her new project she will be playing an iconic super powered character in the much beloved DC Universe Super Girls franchise which has been quickly growing a massive following. Just who will she be playing? Well, Romi isn’t telling….just yet.
When I had the opportunity to interview Romi Dames in conjunction with The Hollywood Museum’s “Child Stars – Then and Now” exhibit, currently being held at the old Max Factor Building on the corner of Hollywood and Highland in Los Angeles, I jumped at the chance to talk to the “funny girl with the voice.” However, little did I know that in less than forty minutes Romi Dames would become one of my new favorite people in pop culture. Romi has a big personality and is tons of fun to talk with. She had me laughing through the entire conversation as we gossiped and told stories and talked about her career.
CONFESSIONS OF A POP CULTURE ADDICT PRESENTS
Sam Tweedle: So you’re taking part in the “Child Stars – Then and Now” exhibit at the Hollywood Museum. What did you contribute to the exhibit?
Romi Dames: I contributed one of my costumes from Hannah Montana. It’s a cute little leopard print dress with a red belt. It’s one of the items I wore on the show. I’ve been to the museum many times for different events. It’s amazing.
Sam: I think that The Hollywood Museum could be one of my favorite places in Los Angeles. What are you favorite items in the museum?
Romi: Well their horror room freaks me out. The Silence of the Lambs set is so cool. Silence of the Lambs is my friend Alison Arngrim’s favorite movie, so she and I were in the jail cells together and we got a picture. It’s one of my favorite photos – me and Nellie Olsen hanging out in Hannibal Lecter’s cage. The museum is great, and they are always changing their exhibit. Just the fact that I am in a museum means I’m old, and I love it. I’m so down. (Laughs)
Sam: Now I’ll admit that when Hannah Montana was on that it wasn’t my thing, but it was the biggest kids show in the world. It was so big that you couldn’t escape it, so even I knew the show, and I distinctly remember you and that funny voice you talked with.
Romi: (Laughs) Well thank you.
Sam: Where did that voice come from? Were you just given the character of Traci Van Horn, or were you allowed to develop her yourself?
Romi: Actually, there was nothing in the breakdown of the character. When I got called for it all they told me that what they wanted was a really snobby sixteen year old girl. At the time I was doing a lot of sketch comedy and I have fun doing voices, so I decided to make her my own. So I decided to (changes voice to Traco Van Horn) that the snobbiest sound was to sound like this.
Romi: Doing the voice changed the facial expressions and it just fell into place. The other thing is that I keep getting told that I’m cheery and chipper, even when I’m doing some dramatic scenes where I’m supposed to be upset. I have these giant cheeks that always make me look happy. So I was trying to fight against type.
Sam: Even when you do the voice there I can’t help but giggle.
Romi: Thank you. Even when going in it was a kind of a risk for me because they didn’t ask for the voice. I was a little nervous about it, but I thought “It’s Disney. I’ve got to have as much fun as I can.” But they loved it. Originally I was supposed to do only one scene in one episode. But as the week went on they really enjoyed the voice, so they kept writing for it. The part got bigger and bigger that week, and by the end of the week they said that they’d have me back. I thought “Oh sure. I know what that means in Hollywood.” But then they did have me back, which was really nice.
Sam: When you took the part you were actually 27 years old.
Romi: Yeah. I was 27 playing 16. I’ve always looked young for my age, and I’m five feet tall, and anyone who goes to the museum will see that it’s a tiny dress for a short person, and they actually had to take in the straps on the dress because I’m a mini-human.
Sam: When Disney put you under contract did they ever tell you to hide that you were older?
Romi: Actually, nobody tried to tell me whether to hide my age. I just did. As an actor you don’t want people to have too much information about you because you want them to believe you are that character. But eventually my age did get out because a reporter asked me my age. It was someone from People. I said “Is Jason Earles telling his age, because if he’s telling his I’ll tell mine.” She said “Uh….yeah…..he is” and I’m so gullible that I said “Oh, okay sure. I’m 27. I was born in 1979.” Of course then it got printed in People and was on my imdb, but I just thought “Well, whatever.” I rather people say I look good for my age than bad.
Sam: When the show was in its height you couldn’t escape it. Hannah Montana was on everything.
Romi: You literally couldn’t. They made Hannah Montana tire pressure gauges.
Sam: Really? Tire pressure gauges?
Romi: Yup. Someone found a tire pressure gauge.
Sam: I thought the weirdest thing I ever saw was Hannah Montana ice packs.
Romi: Yeah. There was so much marketing.
Sam: Well, how did it affect your life in being what was the biggest kids show in the world?
Romi: Well it was interesting. Kids would recognize me, and then they’d kind of saddle up to me and listen to me speak, and I’d speak like I normally do, and then they’d walk away disappointed. Or one of them would say “I know what you’re in” and the other one would say “No she’s not!” The brave ones would sometimes ask and then I’d do the voice for them and then they’d scream and go “Oh my God!” One time I remember I was flying home from Chicago and a little girl was telling her Mom that she thought it was me and her Mom said “That’s definitely not her, sweetie. She doesn’t fly coach.” What can you do? I didn’t want to tap her on the shoulder and say “Excuse me. Do you know who I am?”
Sam: I read that you first came to the United States when you were twelve. Were you doing any acting as a child in Japan?
Romi: I was. My very first show was Annie. It was a community theater workshop on an army base, so it was all in English. I just loved Annie and I saw the audition on a bulletin board and I got my parents to take me and I got the role of Molly. Ever since then all I wanted to do was act. So it was very self-driven. When I came to the States I flipped through the yellow pages and called every single theater and said “Hey. I’m twelve. Do you have any auditions I could participate in?” Some said “Uh, no, we’re a movie theater.” Other said “Yeah, come on down.” So I started auditioning for theater and got an agent and started doing television.
Sam: So when I was looking through your credits I saw that your first gig was Bill Nye, the Science Guy.
Romi: It was!
Sam: He has become such a huge culture icon.
Romi: He is the coolest man ever. I love him! He used to be on a show in Seattle called Almost Live, which came on before Saturday Night Live. It was a live set show that was local, and what he used to do is take a question from the audience and he’d improvise and answer. It was all true, and it was about science, but he would make it funny and entertaining and actually educational and informative. He was so amazing, and that’s how Bill Nye, the Science Guy started. He was phenomenal.
Sam: Do you know how many episodes you did?
Romi: I did a number. Their on Netflix now and it’s so funny. I was going through them, because I can’t remember which ones I was on. So I was fast forwarding them to see if I could find myself and I’d think “Huh. That’s either me or a small African-American boy. I can’t tell.” In the genetics episode I was dressed up as a small Charlie Chaplin explaining DNA.
Sam: I once wrote that Hannah Montana was the first pop culture icon of the 21st Century. What was it do you think that made that show so humongous?
Romi: Well I think it was a number of things that was combined to make it this super nova. One was that parents were kind of interested in the fact that Billy Ray Cyrus came back and they wanted to see what happened with his mullet, so that got parents interested in watching. For kids who tuned in, the show itself was every person’s dream. I mean, who doesn’t want a secret life as a rock star? That tunes in to every kid’s secret desires. Then Miley was so charismatic and hilarious. She just has this very real fun sassy quality. It’s really who she is. Her persona is her. That girl who just says what she wants, and has that cute little Southern thing going on. So that in combination with Emily and Jason Earles and everything was just so on their game. I really think the writing was at a different level then you had on a normal kids show. It was fascinating to watch because behind the scenes they had so many rules and regulations from the network. So I remember there was this episode where Jackson dyed his hair blue, so they made up this song about a blue bird butt. The network came in and said “Yeah, you can’t say ‘butt.’” So considering what kind of limitations they had, the writers could just run with it and make it so family friendly. And family friendly. Not just meaning kid friendly. They could make it interesting to adults as well. We would all laugh at the jokes.
Sam: And it was an exciting time at Disney studios. You had High School Musical going on simultaneously, and The Jonas Brothers were huge and they were under contract. When it came to young actors during that moment in entertainment, Disney had the biggest stable of actors.
Romi: You mean like the class? Like the Brat Pack that ran around from the 80’s? It was kind of like that new generation. It was fun. When I started Hannah Montana I didn’t know what it was. It hadn’t aired yet. But I just had a feeling, because Lizzie McGuire had just ended and, I knew they were looking for that new Lizzie McGuire, that this was going to be big. Miley was around thirteen when it started, and I remember her telling me “Oh yeah. I’m dating this kid named Nick Jonas.” I said “Oh, is he cute? Who is he?” I had no idea who these people were. It was all very education was. But nobody knew who Miley was.
Sam: She came out of nowhere. Miley has really managed to reinvent herself since the show left the air.
Romi: She really has. But the thing is, to me she’s always been the exact same. She’s always been that exact same person. So none of it is surprising to me. She just does whatever the heck is on her mind. She’s not polished in that way. She’s like a rough gem, and I love it. She’s fun and impulsive and she’s not saying something because she thinks you want to hear it. She’s just saying it. That kind of honesty in Hollywood is so rare. I remember this one time around the time we first me, Mitchell Musso was flirting with me, because he flirts with everybody. It wasn’t me specifically. He’s flirt with a telephone pole if he was standing in front of it. That’s just who he is. So he’s flirting with me and Miley comes over and says “Ah, Mitchell. She’s like a hundred years older than you.” She just so funny. She did an Asian impression in front of me once when we were in the makeup chairs, and I thought it was just funny, because I’m half Japanese. It wasn’t a racists impression, but in Hollywood people would shy away from it because they are worried about being offensive. Miley just goes for it. She does whatever she wants, and I love that about her.
Sam: I remember that one Christmas trying to find a Hannah Montana doll was impossible. Again, there was so much merchandise. Did you ever end up on any merchandise?
Romi: No I didn’t, and I’m so mad about that. I mean who would not want a Traci doll where you would pull the string and it’d say (does the Traci Van Horn voice) “That is sooooo uncool.” I mean they had a tire pressure gauge! Really? I couldn’t have a doll? I recently saw a Hannah Montana little girl’s bike in a thrift shop and I thought I should buy it and make a YouTube video of me riding around town on it trying to get people to recognize me. Where is she now? She’s biking down Glendale Ave.
Sam: But I believe that the popularity of this show is going to come around again. I mean, the moment kids grow up and have a disposable income, they start searching for the things of their youth the moment their own nostalgia becomes popular again. Much like how Transformers and Ghost Busters have come back in a big way for our generation, I believe that sooner or later Hannah Montana is going to hit the nostalgia scene again in a massive way because it is pop culture gold.
Romi: That’s a lot of foresight on your part. I totally understand. I was a huge Saved by the Bell fan, and I had this t-shirt with a big heart and a shirtless Zac and Slater on it which I sometimes wear to the gym. So I was at the gym on the elliptical, and I turned and right next to me was Mario Lopez. Then I realized I was wearing the shirt and I was trying so hard to hide it. I was elipticaling sideways. (Laughs)
Sam: You’ve done a lot of voice work in animation. How did you get involved in voice acting?
Romi: Disney just kind of brought me in. I was in Hannah Montana when Disney animation called me over to their department and started me doing auditions for everything they did. One of the first things I did out here was Phineas and Ferb. Disney was great. They got me a great voice over agent and I really credit Disney animation casting for really helping my career out, because I can play so many more roles as a voice over actress then a live actress, because it doesn’t matter what I look like. It only matters what I sound like. So it opens a whole new world for me, because live action is limiting based on how you look and voice acting is freeing.
Sam: Now I got word that it’s just been announced that you are involved in a new project, but it’s still wrapped up in a lot of mystery. What can you tell us about that?
Romi: I am! It’s so fun. I’m doing DC Superhero Girls.
Sam: *gasp* Oh my God! No way! I am so nerding out right now! Are you kidding?
Romi: No. They have already started and I’m not allowed to say who I am yet, but I am going to be someone very iconic in Season Three, and it’s huge. I am so excited about it! You don’t even know.
Sam: I just ordered a complete set of the dolls. I’m crazy about them.
Romi: Did you? I love them! They are so cute.
Sam: Okay. So you can’t tell me who you are playing.
Romi: I can’t.
Sam: Then I’m going to guess.
Romi: You can guess, but I’m going to stay silent.
Sam: Are you playing Zatanna?
Romi: I can’t say. (Laughs) I’m trying to think of what I’m allowed to say. I’m allowed to say that I’m on it, but not who I am because there’s a little twist to the story. We’ve done a couple of movies now, and Season Three will be out in a few months.
Sam: Are you playing a hero or a villain.
Romi: I can’t say. (Laughs)
Sam: But it’s an iconic character.
Romi: Yes. Very iconic. It’s one everyone will know. They are also doing Lego Superhero Girls, and I’m playing the same character on that project as well. It was one who they told me who I was playing that I was so excited that I ran around screaming. I was on eBay and Amazon and looking for t-shirts I could buy for when I can tell people.
Sam: Well this is wonderful. This all ties into my fandom. I just love it.
Romi: I’m such a fangirl for Batman. I stood in line for Paul Dini’s autograph forever when I went to comic con. Batman: TAS from the 90’s is THE Batman. To me there is no other Batman. That’s the one that, in my head, is quintessential Batman.
Sam: What do you want to do next?
Romi: Just because I don’t have very much control over my career I don’t think about that much. I’m just waiting to see what happens next with my career. But, I guess what I’d love to do, if I got control, is to work with my husband, who is a comedy writer, and we’d love to do a little small town late night sketch show.
Sam: What do you mean when you say that you don’t have control of your career?
Romi: Well, unless you are a writer or a producer, you have no control. An actor just waits by the phone. We have control over our auditions, but I don’t get to pick my projects. So I take whatever comes my way. Actors are in that position where beggars can’t be choosers unless you’re a superstar. Otherwise you do whatever you can get. You work with whoever is going to pay you to do your craft. I consider myself lucky if someone is willing to pay me to do a voice or to be on their show. So I don’t get any choice, but I’m so lucky. It’s been incredible.
Sam: Out of everything you’ve done so far, what has been your favorite?
Romi: You know, Hannah Montana has a place in my heart because that’s the biggest show I’ve been on. But everything I’ve done is special, and it’s always because of the people that I work with. But my favorite character so far has definitely been Traci. I just love her.
Sometimes you just have no idea how an interview will go, and I wasn’t ready at all for Romi Dames. Funny, spirited and completely original, I had such a blast talking with her. She really is a really and truly wonderful. But, I’ll admit that I am a huge sucker for the DC Universe Super Hero Girl’s franchise, and I have a feeling that Romi won’t be falling off my radar anytime soon. It’ll be a few more months before we find out who she’s playing, but let the guesses begin.
But if you are in Hollywood on August 20th and 21st 2016, head down to the Hollywood Museum in the historic Max Factor Building at the corner of Hollywood and Highland forr the opening of the “Child Stars – Then and Now” exhibit. Tickets to the event are $10 with purchase of Museum Ticket (autograph prices will vary) and support A Minor Consideration. Tickets can be purchased by calling 949-439-9504 or available at http://tinyurl.com/hdxlokk. For more information visit the Hollywood Museum’s web-site at http://thehollywoodmuseum.com/.
PCA NOTE: Special thanks to Harlan Boll for introducing me to Romi Dames. I can’t even express how much I enjoyed this interview, and Romi really is one of my new favorite people. Thank you so much for this! For information on Harlan Boll Public Relations visit his site at http://bhbpr.com/.
Casting classic comic characters can often be tough. Appeasing the fans of the comics is one of the biggest challenges of all, who have a certain glowing nostalgia for the way the character should look and be. Great casting can make a project based on a comic flourish, while bad casting can kill it. The casting of Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, Christopher Reeves as Superman, Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman was so good they have become ingrained in the minds of the public’s collective subconscious forever. And the same could also be said for Jeannie Russell as Margaret Wade on Dennis the Menace. Sure, it’s a stretch of a comparison, but the example is clearly the same. During an era where comic rarely translated to the screen, Jeannie Russel brought the character of Dennis’ bossy frenemy to life in a very real and endearing way. Under heavy makeup and a mass of curls, Jeannie Russell became the embodiment of Margaret in a very real way.
Growing up in a household dominated by show business, Jeannie Russell followed her brother Bryan Russell into the world of show business in 1959 in an episode of The Deputy. More television would follow, but she would become part of pop culture history when she was cast as Margarete Wade for the TV version of the popular newspaper comic strip Dennis the Menace in 1959. With a distinctive look that was instantaneously recognizable to both fans, Jeannie quickly became one of the favorites of the series, although she surprisingly only appeared in thirty-eight of the 146 episodes filmed over four seasons. Although only a perennial co-star, Jeannie Russell stuck in the minds and hearts of the viewers and become as iconic to the series as star Jay North.
But when the series ended in 1963, Jeannie’s short career came to an end as well. Becoming phased out of Hollywood after a life dominated by show business, Jeannie suddenly found herself forced into the role of an outsider. In the years that followed Jeannie put herself through school and began a successful chiropractor practice, but it seemed like her days in the public eye were over.
However, things changed in 1990 when former child star Rusty Hamer committed suicide. Appearing with Donna Reed Show actor Paul Petersen on a TV talk show, the two realized that something had to be done to help support former child stars who left show business with feelings of abandonment, isolation and other scars. Meanwhile, Jeannie and Paul learnt that Jay North was in a state of crisis, and the two reached out to get him and helped turn his life around. The result was the formation of A Minor Consideration, a non-profit organization of former child stars which supports entertainment kids form the past and present in various psychological and legal matters. As A Minor Considerations first chairman, Jeannie Russell helped rasie awareness to the real life difficulties former child stars face, and helping create programs and legislation to better the lives of kids that go down this unique path in life.
On August 20th and 21st 2016 Jeannie Russell will be joining more than fifty other former child stars at The Hollywood Museum in the old Max Factor Building at the corner of Hollywood and Highland to celebrate the opening of the “Child Star- Then and Now” exhibit. The event will include an autograph show with all proceeds going to support A Minor Consideration’s continues growth and efforts to protect the rights of children in the entertainment industry. As part of the exhibit, Jeannie will be sharing a true treasure that she recently discovered in a box of scripts that her mother saved. Something so rare and horrifying that it may be one of the highlights of the show.
CONFESSIONS OF A POP CULTURE ADDICT PRESENTS
Sam Tweedle: Let’s start from the beginning. How did you get involved in acting when you were a little girl?
Jeannie Russell: I was sort of born into it. My parents were musicians and were living in Hollywood. We lived behind the KTLA Studios, which was where Lassie was filmed. But, in my household what we did as a family was rehearse and practice before I was even professional. So I was being stretched to get ready for dance class and doing some singing. Well one day there was a knock on the door – literally – and it was a production assistant from Lassie. They had spotted my young brother Bryan, and they needed a small child to do pick up shots. They asked my parents if they’d let Bryan do it, and that’s how the whole thing started.
Sam: So you and Bryan were both acting at the same time.
Jeannie: My brother is Bryan Russell. I am known for Dennis the Menace, and I was in The Birds. Bryan not only did television, but he did big movies. He was in How the West Was Won and Bye Bye Birdie. He went on to do a movie with Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris called Safe at Home and then Walt Disney put him under contract. He did a movie called Emil and the Detectives. His final picture was a Disney film called The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin with Roddy McDowall. My brother worked with big stars like James Stewart and Steve McQueen. So there were two of us going out simultaneously which sort of intensified the whole experience. That was dinner talk at night. What Laurence Harvey had done on that day. That kind of thing. We were just totally immersed.
Sam: Where your parents the classic stage parents you hear of?
Jeannie: My father was interested in promoting his career, but my mother always worked. My parents divorced while I was very young. But she was professionally trained and was a concert caliber musician. She did a lot of coaching for us musically and with our acting. My mother was a Jane Withers fan as a little girl, so when I was up for Margaret she coached me on Jane Withers impersonations. A lot of what Margaret was came from Jane Withers. Alison Arngrim later told me that she used to watch me on Dennis the Menace before she did Nellie Olsen, so there is a sort of tradition handed down there.
Sam: I would love to talk about your scene in The Birds. I think that the scene where the birds gather outside the school and then attack the children is one of the most suspenseful and terrifying thing that Alfred Hitchcock ever filmed. It was truly brilliant. What memories of Alfred Hitchcock do you have?
Jeannie: I was Margaret at the time I did The Birds and I was called in for a one on one interview with him. I was alone in the office with Alfred Hitchcock. He was sitting at a desk, and he had storyboards all over his office with pictures of kids running down the hills with gouged out eyes. I knew who he was, because Bryan and I loved watching Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Bryan had even done one of the episodes. So I had no problem looking him in the eye and saying “I want to be in this! I love horror! It’s my absolute favorite!” He sort of nodded. So I got home and my agent called up and said “Jeannie, you’ve got the part” and that we were leaving for Santa Rosa the next week. Well what he did was hired about a dozen Hollywood kids at principal rate, and then he flushed it out with normal kids. But once we were on set it was pretty funny because he wouldn’t talk to at us at all. The assistant director was giving us direction. I had a blast. We were at Bodega Bay for about a week. We ran down that hill I don’t know how many times. I had a mechanical bird rigged under my dress. I’d run down the hill and I’d hit a switch and it’d peck at my head, and the first time down the hill it actually drew real blood. So they had to stop and put some tape and reposition the bird and soften the beak a bit. But I had a blast. One interesting thing is that we sang that song, and that is the actual the only music in The Birds.
Sam: I never noticed that.
Jeannie: Yeah. When you look at the credits there is no music. Just the flapping of wings. There is not one note of music from beginning credits to end credits. The only music is the kids singing that song. Now in preparations for the Child Stars – Then and Now exhibit, I was digging deep into a closet. My mother saved everything, and I got to the bottom of my script box and I nearly fainted. There were fourteen pages of that sequence from The Birds. Literally, Sam, I had to sit down because I had not seen those pages since 1962. A few of those pages are going to be in the exhibit. All of Hitchcock’s shots were on that page, and there were all the verses to that song. So I am able to share a little bit of that with the exhibit.
Sam: Now who came first? Did Hank Ketcham create Margaret prior to the Dennis the Menace series, or did you play her first and then the character was incorporated into the comic?
Sam: I was wondering because it’s amazing how much the made you up to look like the comic character. I mean you could kind of see a bit of Dennis in Jay North, but you were distinctly Margaret.
Jeannie: (Laughs) Yeah. Herbert Anderson, who played Dennis’ dad, and I came the closest to looking like the comic characters.
Sam: Was Hank Ketchum ever on the set? Did you ever meet him?
Jeannie: No. I did not meet Hank Ketchum until the mid-90’s if you can believe that. I never met him during the shooting. He did a book signing in Sherman Oaks and Jay North and Gloria Henry and I went over and surprised him. We got in line and got a book and he was surprised. In my book he drew a quick drawing of Margaret and he signed it “To my favorite Margaret.” Our paths crossed a couple of times after that, and he was also very gracious and glad to see me.
Sam: When you were doing the series they made you up quite heavily. Were you ever recognized when you were out in public?
Jeannie: The only time I was recognized was if I were in my Margaret drag. Like if I came home from the set and I still had my Margaret curls and I’d go outside and some older kids from the high school would see me and go “Oh! There’s that monkey from Dennis the Menace.” The first thing I’d do is stick my head under a faucet and get those curls out. That was my own hair and every time before the cameras they had to do my hair like that.
Sam: At least Alison Arngrim got to wear a wig.
Jeannie: Ah. I didn’t know Alison wore a wig. Okay. That was my real hair in the day of the larger hair and make up department. One of my favorite memories is this one time when they had to bleach Jay’s hair, and here’s Jay under the hair dryer blowing bubble gum and reading a comic book, and there’s me under the hair dryer with all these very hideous pin curls all over my head, and then Jane Fonda is in another chair getting made up for the Academy Awards that night. But sometimes they’d send us out on personal appearances where we’d go to a trampoline court, or this one picture of us at the Beverly Hills courthouse steps and I’d be myself and not as Margaret. But you wouldn’t know who I was. So they had to start sending me out in drag with my hair done and with the glasses so the public would recognize me.
Sam: An interview I did with Paul Petersen was recently quoted in an article about Jay North, and how bad his childhood was. Paul talked about how you and he really helped save Jay in the 1990’s. I read the article about Jay with a lot of interest. Was Jay’s experience as bad as he says it was?
Jeannie: Okay. First of all I never saw any kind of physical abuse in regards to Jay, because I would have been incredibly upset, and my mother would have been upset. I don’t know if he’s claimed physical abuse, but I never saw any. Jay’s mother worked, and his Aunt Marie and Uncle Howard were on the set with him. And Marie was very strict. When a bunch of the kids were working Jay would just light up and want to have lunch with us. But Marie would say “No, he’s got to have lunch in his dressing room. He’s the star and he’s got to conserve his energy.” So Jay was an only child with kind of an absentee Mom and a very strict Aunt. So he did not have a lot of balance in his life. Now I don’t know if you can use the term balance when talking about show biz babies because my house couldn’t have been any wackier. But I had a brother who was in the business, so I didn’t have the kind of isolation that Jay had. Jay was in every scene. He had to really carry the load. But I do remember that he was very sensitive. If he blew a line then, oh my God, he’d apologize to everyone.
Sam: What you said there is what he was saying in the article. He talked a lot about the loneliness and the isolation.
Jeannie: And that’s sort of what A Minor Consideration started being about. When the series ended we all went our separate ways. I had not seen Jay and Paul in twenty years, and then in 1990 Rusty Hamer shot himself and all kinds of bizarre headlines were coming out about former child stars. Then the press started coming around and saying “What’s going on?” So there was this guy from New York called Bobby Rivers. He had a VH1 show and he did a series of interviews of “where are they now” and that’s when I came face to face with Jay and Paul after all these years. So it was eye opening to find out that we all felt the same way, because I too felt very isolated. I spent many a lunch time in high school standing in the girl’s bathroom because I did not know what to do. Decades later I did a Suzanne Sommers show with Dana Plato, and Suzanne asked Dana “What happened?” Dana said “I did not know how to function outside of a sound stage.” You could just tell Suzanne didn’t get it, but I felt like I took a bowling ball to the gut. That isolation is a recurring thing. We had all thought we had failed, and we had all taken it very personally. So that’s how A Minor Considerations started.
Sam: How successful have it been to reaching out to people, and how involved were you in that process?
Jeannie: Well it was a game changer for me. I had a marriage, and I had my chiropractor career, and I had regained myself when all of a sudden I got called in by the media and hooked up with Jay, where we were flown to New York to do Geraldo and Sally Jessy Raphael. So there was no turning back. Meanwhile, Paul made inroads in The Screens Actor Guild. He’d go in and make all kinds of commotion himself, and eventually the president, Barry Gordon, who was a former child actor himself, said to Paul “Okay, you’re right. We’ll have a committee and get things changed, but you can’t be the chair because you’re too volatile. You need someone who can sit down and talk to the board.” So my phone rings and it’s Paul. I was sitting on the couch watching X-Files reruns. Paul says “We’ve got this opportunity to get into SAG and get the union.” So that was the beginning of a six year quest, because I found that I could articulate a lot of the issues, and then Paul would raise hell and bring up issues, and I would take them up to the executive staff, which is an over simplification because it was an eight board national committee. But what it was is that A Minor Consideration infiltrated the old performers committee and put some child actors on it. Through the board process we got the executive staff to realize that children did not own the money that they earned, and working children were getting marked unexcused by teachers and losing academic credits, and also losing premature babies. It took over my life. I was Paul’s first lieutenant I guess you could say. I wound up going to contract negations in New York. I wound up testifying in Sacramento and we successfully got three pieces of legislation passed, which included the one that nobody said we could do, which was getting the Coogan Law revised. Then in 2000 I found out my mother was sick and my husband was leaving me and I abruptly resigned the moment the Coogan Law was turned around.
Sam: I remember watching the Sally Jessy Raphael episode you and Paul were on when it first aired. Last year, after interviewing Paul, I watched it again. I remember at the time it really had an impact on me in realizing that behind our TV icons there lays a real person with real emotions. I think that often gets lost between viewers and performers somehow.
Jeannie: That episode of Sally Jessy Raphael was where everything fell into place because it was on that program that I realized I could articulate. When I did Geraldo before it was a bigger panel and more disorganized. When we were on Sally we realized we were really going to be pin pointing some stuff, and that was a challenge for me. That’s where it started.
Sam: You and Paul really changed Jay’s life at that time. Are you and Jay still in touch?
Jeannie: Oh yes. After 1990 we never let go. We did one talk show, and then another, and then we started working the autograph circuit. I had never heard of this, but there was an imposter who was sitting in claiming he was Lee Akers from Rin Tin Tin. Someone had also been going out that was saying he was Jay North. So Jay called me and said “Please do this with me. I need to shut this down.” I said “You’re kidding me. Someone is going to buy our autographs from us? That’s weird.” But we made a significant sum and I realized this was a cottage industry and I have a product. We’ve had so much fun. We’ve been to New Orleans and Baltimore and New York and Jay was just out here doing The Hollywood Show. So we see each other a couple times a year.
Sam: You had a relatively short career as an actress. You made reference that you were “phased out.” How did that happen, and how did you know your career was coming to an end?
Jeannie: Okay. This is my big issue. Being in show business was fabulous and educational and enriching and I wouldn’t trade it for one nanosecond, except for the very dismissive way they treated children that they had virtually raised. It’s a very cruel and difficult thing to be turned away from your community as an adolescence. When I was working there was no cable television, so it was all network and movies, and there was very little transitional territory. Now they have no problems casting kids to play the age they are. But Stan Livingston told me that the girls they were using to use his high school girlfriends when he was seventeen years old were in their twenties. When you were eighteen they didn’t have to conform to the labor laws. You could spend more time on set and you didn’t have to have a tutor around. As soon as they could they would use older actors to play down, so you hit a real no man’s land when you got to be about fourteen, unless you were a Natalie Wood or Elizabeth Taylor. There are ten years that I wish I had back where I was totally dysfunctional. I’m still ten year behind my peers. You ever see The Graduate? You know when he stands at the bottom of the pool in his scuba gear and he’s just standing there? That’s how I felt in high school.
Sam: In your work with A Minor Consideration did you find that younger actors are still having that same feeling as you were?
Jeannie: When I was working with SAG and doing Geraldo I was meeting younger child actors, and I met this girl who used to be on Step By Step with Suzanne Sommers and Patrick Duffy. Well she told me in an open meeting where we were getting SAG to work on a transition program that she spent her lunches in the bathroom. I thought my head was going to explode to hear that come out of a recent child actor. So my issue, along with Mary McDonough, was to get a transition department going where you could get career days going with the Directors Guild and various other positions behind the camera. Because I remember trying to keep alive by calling my script supervisors and trying to get into the script supervisors union and she shut me down. There was absolutely no support and no information for transition. Kids are a Jello mold in the formative years, and to have an entire industry say “Thank you very much. Now drop dead” is awful. So that was my beef with the industry.
Sam: Now have meeting fans at the autograph shows been a way to show just how much your work did make an impact?
Jeannie: Yeah. That’s a perk of it. But the main reason I go is because there is nothing like hanging with show business peers. There is nothing like it. I got to meet people. Adam West would flirt with me from across from me, or I’d meet George Takei and he’d say “Oh Margaret.” We were meeting people whose shows we have seen. This is part of the fun, because we all get where we are now. This is a behind the scenes way to hobnob a bit. But what is amazing about meeting the fans is that you can meet people who watched the show and say “It got me through my parents’ divorce” and to really understand the way that television’s waves were out there. It’s amazing. I’m very proud of it. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
The world of pop culture may always remember Jeannie Russell as Margaret, but she has made her true mark on show business with the work she has done with A Minor Consideration. An important organization that is taking care of a very niche subculture of performers, A Minor Consideration’s work continues, and as long as there are kids working in entertainment there will still be a need for A Minor Consideration. For more information on A Minor Consideration visit their web-site at http://aminorconsideration.org/.
And for those in Los Angeles on August 20th and 21st, come out and meet Jannie Russell and more actors from you favorite television programs by support A Minor Consideation at The Hollywood Musueum in the historic Max Factor Building. Tickets to the event are $10 with purchase of Museum Ticket (autograph prices will vary) and can be purchased by calling 949-439-9504 or available at http://tinyurl.com/hdxlokk. For more information visit the Hollywood Museum’s web-site at http://thehollywoodmuseum.com/.
PCA NOTE: Special thanks to Harlan Boll for organizing my visit with Jeannie Russell. I appreciate you bringing me together with the people involved in A Minor Consideration and helping to further promote this important organization. For information on Harlan Boll Public Relations visit his site at http://bhbpr.com/.
In 1966 CBS unveiled a different type of family sit-com when Family Affair made its premier. Starring Brian Keith and Sebastian Cabot, it was the story of a rough around the edges bachelor and his British gentleman valet taking charge of three orphaned relatives who nobody seemed to want. Filled with heart, the show was more drama then comedy, and it never lost that little hint of sadness. A risk for CBS at the time by developing a sit-com with a non-traditional family situation, Family Affair paid off and became a big hit for the network.
Somewhere settled between the precocious adventures of Buffy and Jody, played by Johnny Whittaker and Anissa Jones, and the juxtaposition of the adult world of Uncle Bill and Mr. French, was fifteen year old big sister Cissy Davis, played by actress Kathy Garver. Mature for her age, Cissy’s journey to securely fit into her new world became a part of the early episodes, creating a unique place in the series to endear her to fans. Family Affair ran for five successful seasons until 1971, where it continued in reruns to charm generations of viewers for decades to follow.
Starting her career as a child, Kathy Garver appeared in television series such as Our Mrs. Brooks, The Red Skelton Show and The Millionaire before transitioning into small roles in classic films as Night of the Hunter and The Bad Seed. But it was while standing among a plethora of extras in Cecil B. DeMille’s epic The Ten Commandments that Kathy caught the eye of the legendary director, who pulled her out of the crowd and gave her her first big break on the screen by writing her into scenes with the film’s star Charleton Heston. More television followed including roles on The Patty Duke Show, The Rifleman, Father Knows Best and Dr. Kildare, giving Kathy a wide range of acting experienced and making her a seasoned pro before finding stardom on Family Affair. When Kathy took the role of Cissy for Family Affair, she was attending UCLA as a speech major. Twenty years old at the time, she lied about her age to get the role of fifteen year old Cissy. However, she was perfect for the part, and brought an edge of maturity and depth to Cissy which other sit-com daughters lacked.
In the years that followed Kathy has kept busy on stage, in films and television and has had a successful career as a voice actress for cartoons and reading audio books. Winning awards for her voice work, Kathy teaches voice acting and diction today. Kathy is also the author of three books – The Family Affair Cookbook, a memoir titled Surviving Cissy, and her latest book, X Child Stars: Where They Are Now. A regular at autograph shows all over North America, Kathy keeps Family Affair in the hearts and minds of the public by meeting fans and signing autographs.
On August 20th and 21st, Kathy will be amongst more than 50 former child stars at the Hollywood Museum in the old Max Factor Building at Hollywood and Highland. Celebrating the new exhibit “Child Stars – Then and Now,” Kathy will be displaying some of her mementos from Family Affair and The Ten Commandments through to December.
A smart and well-spoken lady, I was lucky to speak to Kathy about her career as an actress, and have her share her thoughts and memories of Family Affair, her co-stars and about being Cissy.
CONFESSIONS OF A POP CULTURE ADDICT PRESENTS
Sam Tweedle: You are participating in the “Child Stars – Then and Now” exhibit at the Hollywood Museum, as well as the autograph show celebrating the opening. What did you submit to the display for the museum exhibit?
Kathy Garver: I live in Northern California, so I Fed-Exed some of my memorabilia to the museum this week. I gave them a scarf that I wore in Family Affair, as well as a little red patent purse that I carried around. I gave them my life achievement award to display, as well as some photos from The Ten Commandments. It’s the fiftieth anniversary of Family Affair and the sixtieth anniversary of The Ten Commandments, which was one of my first movies. This year they made a special Ten Commandments stamp, and I’m exhibiting that. My books are also going to be available through the museum including my Family Affair Cookbook, my memoirs Surviving Cissy and, my latest book, X-Child Stars: Where Are They Now.
Sam: Tell me a bit about your latest book.
Kathy: X-Child Stars: Where They Are Now takes the TV child stars of the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s and gives a brief synopsis of the series they were in, like Leave it to Beaver and My Three Sons, and then gives the character’s backgrounds and then what the actors are doing now. My next book, which is called X Child Stars: The Movies will take the child stars that were not on TV per se, but were in the movies. There is also a television series we are developing about it too. It’s an ongoing process.
Sam: Before you did The Ten Commandments, you appeared in one of my favorite films Night of the Hunter. I am a huge Robert Mitchum fan. Do you have any memories of working on that film?
Kathy: That was really my first film and it was so exciting. What I do have is a copy of the book Night of the Hunter which I brought to a wrap party, and Charles Laughton and Shelly Winters and Robert Mitchum were all very nice to sign it for me, and Hilyard Brown, who was the art director, drew a picture for me. It was a wonderful movie.
Sam: It’s been written that it was Cecil B. DeMille who picked you out of a crowd scene in The Ten Commandments and gave you your first real break. What do you remember about Mr. DeMille?
Kathy: Well I was originally hired on The Ten Commandments as one of the hordes of extras, and I was riding on a wagon and all of a sudden I heard this big voice boom out “Don’t let that little girl’s face get in the camera!” I thought “Uh oh! What did I do wrong?” Well, it was Cecil B. DeMille up above on a big crane, and he was very wont to do this when he was filming a big epic, to make them more accessible to people. He would pick out people from on the set, and he picked me out and wrote scenes for me into the movie with Charleton Heston. I do remember Cecil B. DeMille very well, but sort of like how a child remembers things, through the senses. I remember the scents and the touch and the feel of it very vividly. I’m doing the Mid-Atlantic Convention next month, and Debra Paget is going to be there. Well, when I was a very small child, even before I was in The Ten Commandments, I was performing in the Shrine Auditorium in LA and I remember going down the aisle and meeting her, and I remember thinking she was the most beautiful being I had ever seen. So I am very excited to see her next month.
Sam: Have you seen her since you did The Ten Commandments?
Kathy: No. I haven’t seen her!
Sam: I didn’t realize you were twenty years old when you took the role of Cissy, who was fifteen. She was a lot younger than you were. What was it like being an adult playing a teenager?
Kathy: It certainly did help the production company, but I did lie when I went into the interview and told them I was eighteen. That was a good thing for them because I could work longer. But I was a young woman, and a very naïve woman I must say who was very protected by my family, but my age gave me a certain depth and maturity for that character.
Sam: So do you feel that being an adult help you develop Cissy more than if you were actually her age?
Kathy: Well, one of the reasons I believe that child stars have such a hard time making the transition is that when you’re young you are primarily asked to learn your lines and hit your mark and say the words. There is no character development or any of the things that an adult actor is required to do. Then the child actor says to themselves “I did a series. I’m a wonderful actor.” Well not so fast, kiddo. Not necessarily. The child actor might have been hired because they are cute, or outgoing, or looked like a part. Well, I think that a fifteen year old would have been more in the guise of Buffy and Jody. They might have been talented, and that’s fine, but they would have hit their marks and say their lines. So I had that three or four other layers where I would analyze my part and realize that Cissy was this kid who lost both of her parents and is going from this small country town into the big city of New York and how is one going to deal with all of that. Well that’s the contrast of being and adult and a child. There are more layers.
Sam: I remember there was always a hint of sadness and melancholy to Family Affair. It was a lot different than the other family comedies at the time. How would you define Family Affair’s difference?
Kathy: Well Family Affair had a lot of firsts. It was the first sit-com that was in color. Color came in in 1966. Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best was all in black and white. So that was different, and that kaleidoscope at the beginning was a way to remind people that it was in color and that it was different. Also, it was one of the first shows to have an unrelated male as the head of the household. So in Father Knows Best you had the Mom and the Dad and the kids, and you had Leave it to Beaver which was kind of the same thing. You had The Brady Bunch which was a little bit different, but still had the Mom and the Dad and the kids. Well here was Brian Keith and Sebastian Cabot who were two guys raising these kids. I have a lot of gay friends and fans who love that concept. Another reason was that we were so accepting of everything. That made a big difference. My co-author of X Child Stars, Fred Ascher, is gay and he was also a latch key kid. So he would come home and nobody would be there and he would go in and watch the show and that gave me a lot of comfort and acceptance. That kind of emotion stayed with him until he was grown. So those were big distinguishing factors. But ours was also more of a dramedy because we were orphans. Our parents died, and that feeling never left the series. It made it more real.
Sam: I read that you worked with Brian Keith prior to Family Affair and that you really looked up to him as a mentor. What lessons did you learn from Brian Keith?
Kathy: Well especially during the time of Family Affair, and going forward, he had a big influence. At that time I had worked all the way to going to UCLA, and I had seen all sorts of styles of acting. I just soaked in the way that Brian was so low key and very relaxed. When he’d get a script he contrasted a great deal to Sebastian Cabot, who was English. Later on I went to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and I learnt what he was doing. So Sebastian would analyze each scene, and he would learn and he would spend so much time each weekend learning every single word and then he would recite them on the set. Brian would come in and say “Okay. What are we doing today?” He would look at the script and then say “Okay, let’s go.” It was really a good example for me to see the contrasting styles. As I further developed as an actor, I incorporated both styles. I analyze and learn the scene, but then when I get up to do it I just do it naturally.
Sam: Sebastian Cabot was a larger than life character actor with a great voice. What else can you tell us about him?
Kathy: He was very professional, and it was interesting because I think all the characters on the show were good people inside. They were very loving people. Brian Keith loved kids. He was a big Irish man who loved to drink and he could be a bit rowdy on occasion, but he had a very soft spot for kids. Sebastian loved his family, and again he cared about kids. So that came through. Brian could be tough, but he had that soft spot, and Sebastian was playing a nanny, but he had to be sophisticated but underneath he had that warm heart.
Sam: When fans think of the series fans immediately think of Buffy and Jody, and Johnny and Anissa were very much fan favorites that made most of the marketing. You were really stuck in the middle, because the kids were so much younger and the adults were so much older. Did you have any sort of relationship with them? Where did you fit in the dynamics of the show?
Kathy: Outside of the series I went to a lot of discos. Inside of the series I became the ultimate big sister. Johnny Whitaker had seven brothers and sisters, so he had a lot to take up his time, but Anissa and I had a very nice relationship and she would come over to my house and spend the night, or we would hang out together. But most of the time the kids were in school for three hours and weren’t on the set. I was over eighteen so I didn’t have to go to school. So I would read and do needlepoint. If we had iPhones or computers back then it would have been difficult to get me off the phone. So I was primarily the big sister helping out.
Sam: After Family Affair did you find that casting directors still thought of you as an adult and had a hard time thinking of you grown up?
Kathy: Well whenever that happened I just changed my focus and my emphasis a little bit. After the series was over I went to London to go to the Royal Academy, because I hadn’t suffered enough for my art. So I really had the basis and the ability. Then I came back and did stage plays for a long time. So once we got through that transitional hump as picturing me as a grown up, what I could go back to the casting directors with was all this wealth of experience on the stage which I then had at that time. So that was able to change their minds, and I was able to take on various characters that were believable.
Sam: I was looking at a list of your voice over work. You’ve had a great career as a voice actress. How did you get into doing voices for cartoons and book work?
Kathy: Well I had a commercial agent, and on one audition they were sending me on they said “This is a voice over.” I said “What’s that?” They said just go on the audition. So I went and the fellow said “Here’s your line. Just say the line.” The line was “I like tuna fish.” So I said “I like tuna fish.” He said “Say it a different way” so I said “I LIKE tuna fish” in a different voice. He said say it again. So I said “I like TUNA fish.” I clearly wasn’t getting it and I didn’t get the part. So I signed up immediately for voice over classes where I found out that I do have a prepotency for being able to change my voice and doing a lot of cartoons. I have a lot of energy in my voice, which fit in well in doing animation. Then I also started doing audio books which I love doing. I’ve done over seventy audio books. So it was something that fit well with my talent. I teach it now. I teach how to do audio books and how to do voices for toys.
Sam: Now I’ve got to nerd out for a moment. I’m a big comic book fan, and I saw that you did the voice of Firestar on Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends. Firestar was created specifically for that series, but she is a character that has endured and his still beloved by comic fans today. Cartoons series may be a short gig, but their impact on the kids that watch them is massive. Do you get Firestar fans contacting you?
Kathy: Oh, absolutely. This is a character that has endured as you say. This was Marvels first time where they had created a character for animation instead of bringing her over from the comic book. In October I’m going to Comikaze which is Stan Lee’s comic book convention. I love going to comic book conventions. People were inspired by Firestar. I have three or four beautifully drawn renditions of the character that fans have given me. It’s interesting how a character can touch people.
Sam: She’s been a favorite of mine since I was a kid watching the show. When you get a character like Firestar, how do you design a voice for her?
Kathy: Well, the way I look at it is that a character is only part of yourself. To me the only way to make a character real is to go inside yourself and find where those particular characters live. We all have different characters in ourselves, and we present them differently if we are in a church or a synagogue or to a partner and so on. So for Firestar, there are times when I feel very strong. I was a cheerleader. So I had to have a lot of strength to cheer the team on so that they could win. So I have that voice inside of me. Then, to be Angelica Jones, who was the sweeter person and the shy part of myself, I would call on that part. But it’s that inner strength that I believe that we all have but we are reluctant to call out. That’s the joy of playing characters.
Sam: A number of years ago the WB tried to revive Family Affair but the series failed. How did you feel when you found out they were going to do it, and why don’t you think it succeeded while the other one is still being watched today?
Kathy: Well, I wanted to do it myself. I had actually gotten the rights to do a Family Affair movie. But it just do happen that a friend of Johnny Whittaker’s was sitting at the next booth at the Smoke House, right near Warner Brothers, and had heard me discussing this with the producer. Well, he told Johnny who immediately told Sid Krofft, who said “Well, we’re going to do a series then.” So they started putting the series together before I could start getting my movie out. So I wasn’t very happy about it. That’s how I felt about it.
Sam: I don’t blame you for being unhappy.
Kathy: But I personally don’t think that remakes do very well. That’s a pointed statement. Sequels do great, like Brady Bunch Grows Up and Brady Bunch Goes to Mars or whatever. Leave it to Beaver had two sequels where they used the same people. That is what I think is more acceptable to the audience. Excuse my language but I think the Family Affair remake sucked. It was just awful. The reason it didn’t succeed is that it didn’t have the heart of Family Affair. It didn’t have the good casting of the people we discussed that loved playing the characters that they got to play. So you had Tim Curry, who is a wonderful actor, overplaying, and only playing, the phonetic part of the nanny. You had Gary Cole, who was totally flat. There were no layers to his character, so you couldn’t see the swashbuckler that Uncle Bill was. The kids were cute, but they weren’t twins. They were so different in height that they didn’t look like twins. And then the girl changed her name from Cissy to Sigourney and she was rocking out. Even my son, who is now 25, would watch it and go “Mom! Cissy would never do that!” (Laughs) My son was looking out for his Mom and Cissy. But I think the main thing is that it had no heart.
Sam: Well the thing is that you need to grow and develop characters to love them. You can’t just cookie cutter them. You can’t just get another actor to step in a role and be a character that has already been organically developed by someone else. A character is more than just a name.
Kathy: That is very insightful. You just can’t just take whatever is there and replace that.
Time has proven that you can’t replace Family Affair in the minds and the hearts of the fans, and the show continues to endure five decades after it first made its debut. Since her days playing Cissy, Kathy Garver has never stopped working and reinventing her place in the entertainment industry. A quick look at her imdb page reveals that she has continued to find a place in film, movie and animation continuously since, and that list doesn’t include all the theater she has done, or the work she has become noted for audio books. But fans will always love her in the role of Cissy Davis, and she continues to keep the flame of Family Affair alive in her many appearances at autograph shows and comic book conventions across North America. For more information on Kathy, her career and books, and her appearances visit her web-site at www.kathygarver.com.
If you are in Hollywood on August 20th and 21st, don’t miss the chance to meet Kathy, check out her books and see the “Child Stars – Then and Now” exhibit at the Hollywood Museum in the historic Max Factor Building. One of the most incredible places in Los Angeles, there is something for everyone to see. Tickets to the event are $10 with purchase of Museum Ticket (autograph prices will vary) and can be purchased by calling 949-439-9504 or available at http://tinyurl.com/hdxlokk. For more information visit the Hollywood Museum’s web-site at http://thehollywoodmuseum.com/.
PCA NOTE: Special thanks to Harlan Boll for facilitating my visit with Kathy Garver. I’ll admit that I had maybe a bit of a crush on Cissy Davis the one summer that Family Affair ran in my area back in the 1980’s, so it was fun to revisit the show and talk to such a wonderful and smart actress. Thank you Harlan for this opportunity. For information on Harlan Boll Public Relations visit his site at http://bhbpr.com/.
As a little girl, Margaret O’Brien walked as an equal amongst the biggest icons of Hollywood. One of the most famous child stars of the 1940’s, Margaret was a favorite of movie goers who fell in love with the precocious girl with the long braids in some of the biggest films of the era. But while she became a film star all her own, in her heart Margaret was still an ordinary young girl in an extraordinary world.
The daughter of a circus performer and a Flamenco dancer, Margaret was raised alone by her mother when her father died before she was born. Making her film debut in the musical Babes in Broadway in 1941, Margaret was given a contract with MGM a year later when she was brought back for the highly successful Journey for Margaret. A huge hit for the studio, Margaret returned to the screen year after year for the studios biggest films with its biggest stars. Margret would go on to appear in film such as Jane Eyre, Madame Currie, Our Vines Have Tender Grapes, Little Women, The Centerville Ghost and The Secret Garden.
But to generations of film fans Margaret is best remembered and forever beloved for her role as Tootie Smith in Vincent Minnelli’s 1944 musical Meet Me in St. Louis where she costarred alongside Judy Garland. Audiences were moved to tears in the iconic scene where Judy introduced the world to the song Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas in an attempt to comfort a heartbroken Margaret. For her role in the film, Margaret would be awarded a special Juvenile Award by the Academy Art of Motion Pictures in 1945. A rare statue given to only a handful of people, the award is one of the rarest in the world.
However, when she was a teenager, Margaret’s Oscar was stolen by a housekeeper that worked for her family. Margaret thought it was lost forever until it was found at a Flea Market by a pair of auctioneers in 1995. Planning to put it up for auction, the Academy stepped in and had the Oscar returned to Margaret in a special ceremony nearly fifty years after she first received it..
Now guests to the Hollywood Museum at the Max Factor Building can see Margaret’s rare Oscar as part of the “Child Stars- Then and Now” exhibit which is running through to December. The show features props, artifacts and memorabilia celebrating the history of young actors working in Hollywood.
Margaret will also be joining over 50 former child stars from across the entertainment spectrum at the museum on August 20th and 21st for a special autograph show benefiting A Minor Consideration, a non-profit organization that supports both child stars of the past and present.
A true lady, it is always a rare treat to talk to anyone who worked in the golden age of Hollywood. I was truly lucky to have Margaret take time to talk to me about her life in Hollywood, and share memories of some of the people that she worked with.
CONFESSIONS OF A POP CULTURE ADDICT PRESENTS
Sam Tweedle: Last night, while preparing for today, II watched The Secret Garden for the first time. I had never seen it before.
Margaret O’Brien: Did you! That was one of my favorites! I loved doing that film, because it was one of my favorite books. It was one of only a few films where they did half the film in color and half in black and white, so it was a bit unusual for its time. When I saw how they did the garden I thought it was very impressive. It was wonderful that the garden was in color when they worked so hard on all the planets and the flowers.
Sam: I understand that you are involved at the “Child Star – Then and Now” exhibit at the Hollywood Museum. You’ve lent your Oscar to be put on display, and you’re going to be attending the autograph show on August 20th and 21st.
Margaret: I love the Max Factor building where the show is being held. They are going to have different displays and showing a lot of movie memorabilia. I am also showing some of my costumes and some rare pictures. Of course my Oscar is on loan for several months now.
Sam: Tell me how you first got involved in show business. I read that your parents were both entertainers.
Margaret: Well my mother was a famous dancer with the casinos. My mother was having some pictures taken for the marquee of the theater by a very famous photographer named Paul Hesse, who took a lot of photographs of actresses and movie stars. So my mother and my aunt, who was a dancer too, arrived at the studio, and my mother did not have a babysitter that day. So she brought along me and my little dog. When they walked in the photographer said “That’s the face I’m looking for, because I’m doing a cover for Saturday Evening Post. That’s just what I’m looking for!” Well my mother thought it was her, but he was talking about the dog! My mother was a great dog person. She could train them, because we would travel a lot and she would take the plane and the dog had to behave. So the photographer said “Can I use the dog for the cover? The baby’s not so bad either. She’s kind of cute. Can we put the baby in with the dog? Do you mind?” So they did and we made the cover. We did quite a few covers with Paul Hesse after that. So when the studio was casting for Babes on Broadway they were looking at magazine covers for little girls. I was two years old and they brought me in to say some words in a casting office, and they gave me the part. Then, two years later, they were casting for Journey for Margaret and they said “Let’s call back that little girl that did that cute little scene in Babes on Broadway.” So I came out to the studio again and auditioned amongst many children, and I got the part which lead to the career I had at MGM.
Sam: Babes in Broadway is such a fun movie to watch. Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland were so larger than life. You were only two when you did the film. Do you have many memories of being in it?
Margaret: I remember everything. Yes. I have a very photographic memory. I can remember everything about everything. In that movie I didn’t work with Judy or Mickey. I was in a scene in the casting office. But, of course I became good friends with Judy, because we did Meet Me in St. Louis. I would see Mickey on the lot all the time.
Sam: When I was going over the list of movies you did I was pondering over how you worked with people who I consider giants in the entertainment industry. People who were legends and icons and untouchable. You were on sets with Orson Welles, James Cagney, Elizabeth Taylor, Spencer Tracy, Judy Garland, Peter Lawford and the list goes on and on. This was your reality, but were you ever star struck at all?
Margret: No. I was never star struck at all. The only one I was star struck by was Vivian Leigh and Burt Lancaster. But Vivian Leigh was the only person who I ever wanted their autograph.
Sam: What was it about Vivian Leigh that made you admire her so much?
Margaret: Sometimes when I had time off and I was still at the studio, to amuse me they would show me a film. But for some reason they wouldn’t show me children’s films. They would show me Vivian Leigh in Waterloo Bridge and Lady Hamilton and all of those. So I was just awestruck by her, and wanted to be just like Vivian Leigh. In later years, when I was about ten, when we were visiting England she was doing Antony and Cleopatra on the stage and the studio arranged for me to go back stage and have tea with Vivian Leigh. I couldn’t even speak, and I was just awestruck. I remember that Lawrence Olivier was so nice. He waved to me from the wings as I was watching the show from the box and when I was having tea with Vivian Leigh he came back and he said “I know you asked my wife for her autograph. Would you like mine too?” I said “No. I’m not interested in yours. I just wanted Vivian Leigh’s.” Of course today I wish I did have his autograph, but you know children speak what’s in their heart.
Sam: When you were working as a child in Hollywood you worked a lot. Did you have much time to interact with other kids?
Margaret: Yes. I had a private tutor, but I would go into the school at recess and play with the kids there. But I always had a stand in on the set, which was the same age and in all the films with me. Her name was Maureen and she was also under contract. We’d play together and do things together between scenes and we’d go to school on set. She was the nicest person. Her father was head of props at MGM. So we kind of grew up together, but we lost track of each other when we became teenagers. She went on to her school and I went on to other things. But we reunited about ten years ago, and we are such good friends today. I also had friends who were not at the studio. I had a little girlfriend named Nancy who lived right next door to me. So I had plenty of children. I just didn’t actually go to a regular school.
Sam: Now I want to talk a bit about your Oscar. It’s become a famous story in itself. Your Oscar was stolen by a housekeeper when you were a teenager, and you were finally reunited with it only a few years ago. How did it feel to be reunited with it after all that time?
Margaret: It was quite a surprise because I never thought I’d see it again. You never know how lost treasures turn up. I am thankful for the Academy, who are always looking for Oscars that have gone astray or been lost over the years. Now you can never sell an Oscar. It either belongs to the family or you return it to the Academy. That’s the way it is. I never thought I’d see it again. The Academy found out that these antique dealers had found it at the Rose Bowl Swap Meet and a little vendor had bought it from the children of the lady who had worked for us years ago. When she passed away her kids didn’t know if it was real or not. They just knew their mother had had it, so they sold it to this little man. These auctioneers kept looking at it, and they figured they’d buy it
and auction it off. So the Academy found out and said to them “No, you can’t do that.” So I am one of the few people who were presented with the same Oscar twice. The Academy gave me a little ceremony when I got it back. The Academy asked if I wanted a larger one, but I said no because the small ones are very rare. They were presented to very few people. I think they are much rarer to have.
Sam: I was wondering if you could talk about Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis. When I watch that film I think it’s the most beautiful that Judy Garland ever was.
Margaret: Judy thought it was the most beautiful she ever was as well. She was wonderful to work with. Very lovely and sweet. I’m friends with her children too. We kind of all kept to be friends through the years. She was a wonderful mother, and Judy was a lot of fun. People think of her being sad and tragic, but she really had a wonderful sense of humor and loved being around kids and to have a good time. She was fun in her personal life. The sad thing was that the studio overworked her. Of course came problems with taxes and things, but Judy loved working and doing fun things too. I think she would have liked a little more time off. I thinks that’s where some of the problems were.
Sam: Out of all the films you did, my favorite is Little Women. The cast that you were with in that film was a powerhouse – Elizabeth Taylor, Janet Leigh, Mary Astor, June Allyson. My goodness. That was just and amazing group you were with.
Margaret: That was another great book. That was one of Elizabeth’s wonderful roles. She was so great in it and kind of funny the way she was stuck up. Elizabeth had her 18th birthday while we were doing that film. June was the oldest, and then Janet was in the middle. Elizabeth was really happy while making that film. She was just graduating and she didn’t have the teacher hounding her on the set. It was a happy time for Elizabeth.
Sam: In the 1950’s you moved from film to television, which you’ve done a lot of. Did you ever feel like you were forced to make that transition?
Margaret: I was really lucky that television was being so big so I had another medium to go to, because studios were really closing at the time. They were doing away with the contracts. They asked me and many other actors at the time, to stay at the studios but take a salary cut. My mother said “No. Television is the next big thing and we’re going to leave.” I’m glad that she said that because shortly after that the contracts were cancelled anyway. That was very smart of my mother that she saw that television was in. I did about every television show there was. I had a big television career. I did a lot of wonderful television and worked with some wonderful actors that I would have never had the opportunity to work with – Rod Taylor, Jeffrey Hunter and John Barrymore Jr, and Robert Young who I did some of my first films with. I was with him on Marcus Welby. It was a kind of reunion.
Sam: You’ve mentioned your mother’s influence on your career a few times. How important was she during your career?
Margaret: My mother was very important to me, but she was not a stage mother. She knew what was what and was very attractive. She was the one who walked into Leo B. Meyer’s office and said “My daughter is getting top salary or we are not doing Meet Me in St. Louis.” My mother was a bit of a gypsy and had her own career as a dancer. So she took me off to New York. She had a bit of a Hedy Lamar look. In fact, Louis B. Meyer asked her to marry him one time. She said “No, I don’t think so.” So she was wonderful in getting me the salary, because otherwise I would have been working for nothing.
Sam: What is it like to meet with fans today?
Margret: It’s wonderful. Fans are just great. I’ve always wanted to be good to my fans. They are the ones who gave me a wonderful life. I think we all should be nice to our fans. I think sometimes people don’t do it today and that is a shame. They are the ones that make you and you need to keep that in mind.
Sam: Do you think its different today in how close that fans and stars can get? It seems in the classic era of Hollywood that the stars on the screen seemed so untouchable and far away. Now they seem more accessible.
Margaret: I think that they are not as assessable in person, but they are more accessible because of the internet. I think that stars put up to much about their personal lives, and I think that’s a bit of a shame. I think the mystery that the studios created was nice.
Stories like those told by Margaret O’Brien are the gems that Hollywood tales are made of. A wonderful woman who lived a wonderful career, don’t miss your chance to meet a true Hollywood icon at The Hollywood Museum on August 20th and 21st. Tickets to the event are $10 with purchase of Museum Ticket (autograph prices will vary) and can be purchased by calling 949-439-9504 or available at http://tinyurl.com/hdxlokk. For more information visit the Hollywood Museum’s web-site at http://thehollywoodmuseum.com/.
PCA NOTE: Special thanks to Harlan Boll for arranging my visit with Margaret O’Brien. This was one of those one in a lifetime interview opportunities that makes memories, and thank you for giving me that opportunity. For information on Harlan Boll Public Relations visit his site at http://bhbpr.com/.
Although rock iconisim seemed to have passed him by, British musician Arthur Brown has become known by rock n’ roll aficionados as the god father of shock rock. With his face painted in garish makeup, Arthur would screech like a banshee, set the stage on fire, dance like in a voodoo trace and wear a trademark helmet that would shoot flames from his head. In the summer of 1968, when Arthur rolled out his elaborate rock n’ roll stage show The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, there was nothing quite like it. When he released his debut album in June 1968, the biggest songs in the world was Simon and Garfunkel’s Mrs. Robinson and Herb Alpert’s This Guys in Love With You. In a few months Arthur Brown would change the face of rock n’ roll when he captivated audiences on both sides of the Atlantic by screaming a new message: “I AM THE GOD OF HELLFIRE AND I BRING YOU FIRE!”
While studying philosophy at the University of London and the University of Reading in the mid 1960’s, Arthur Brown walked amongst intellectual circles, but found himself drawn to the musical scene that dominated the culture of the era. Finding himself drifting in and out of various bands, Brown eventually found himself as a member of the popular pop band The Foundations that were on the edge of signing a major music contract. However, Brown was not satisfied with playing nice music for the mass audience. Highly influenced by a year spent in Paris in 1966 where he studied theater, Brown had a vision where he would be more cutting edge than the Beatles, more deviant then the Rolling Stones and scare the shit out of Herman’s Hermits and The Hollies. Leaving The Foundations after only a few weeks, Brown developed his own stage act called The Crazy World of Arthur Brown. Incorporating art, music, poetry and theater, Brown combined African mysticism with Faustian imagery and Greek mythology to develop a musical act like nothing known before. Shocking audiences with his onstage antics and provocative appearance, Brown became the first music star of the British underground when he released his first LP The Crazy World of Arthur Brown. Clearly an acquired taste, Brown defied the odds as his debut single, Fire, rose to the top of the charts in October 1968 (ironically, The Foundations Build Me Up Buttercup placed on the charts at the same time). Shocking censors when he appeared on popular European music shows Top of the Pops and Beat Club, Brown wasn’t a music star that you’d see in 16 Magazine, but he surely made an impression. His screams and wails were unforgettable, and his eerie act was unlike anything in the British music industry.
Arthur Brown would never see the same chart success as he did with Fire, and would quickly be deemed a British novelty act. But his influence would continue to be felt in the budding heavy metal scene that was still barely in its infancy. Elements of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown could be seen in the music and stage shows of acts and artists such as Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper, KISS, Kings X, Gwar and Marilyn Manson. Before shock rock was even a genre, Arthur Brown had unknowingly created an entire genre of musical expression that would delight alienated youth and scare their parents.
Since discovering his album, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, I have been fascinated with Brown and his legacy. However, in reality Arthur Brown is as mystifying and as surprising as his stage alter ego. Thoughtful and soft spoken, Brown relived his career with me in a lengthy conversation filled with stories and philosophies. But often the real surprises were not in the stories we expected, but those we did not know. What were the origins of his elaborate stage show, where did he disappear to in the 1980’s, and did Arthur Brown really set his head on fire at a show in 1967? Surprisingly candid, Arthur Brown reveals so much to me. Both on and off stage, Arthur Brown has the ability to inspire and fascinate.
Sam: When you first developed The Crazy World, there wasn’t anything like shock rock. How did you come up with the crazy idea create the crazy world of Arthur Brown.
Arthur Brown: Well, it was really a product of a few different things. I came up with the idea when I was living in Paris and I was around a lot of art and Jazz and blues music. I had this idea to have a multi-media club with statues, paintings and that kinds of stuff, but I had just gotten back to England and I had no money, so I thought that I’d put that multi-media idea into a band. The multi-media stage show happened bit by bit and by chance usually.
Sam: I know you found your first real success in Paris, and also became very popular in Germany.
Arthur: When I was in Paris it was a really wild scene. You got to be on TV three or for weeks in a row in France. Nobody knew me in England. A lot of experimental people would come to see us perform, and there were a lot of beatniks. The hotel I was staying in was where a lot of ladies of the night would be, and they’d have a lot of wild parties. We were playing three sets a night every night, and two of those on a Sunday. After a while you get a bit bored and you start to experiment and improvise. So I brought in lots of skits into the act, like General DeGaul cutting the Popes hair, and stuff like that. The audience liked it, so when I got back to England I met Vincent Crane and Drachen Theaker, who made up the band that would eventually become The Crazy World, and we decided to try this multi-media thing with costumes. But in those days most people didn’t really go for it.
Sam: You were obviously a lot different than the established acts at the time. How did you finally find your place in the music scene?
Arthur: Well, we just happened one time to play The Speakeasy, and Joe Boyd, who was instrumental in starting the British underground, was looking for bands to play in the newly opened UFO Club. The UFO Club became very popular in the music world. There were all kinds of altered states in there. And there were all kinds of experimentation with people doing experimental dance. There was this one lot called The Exploding Galaxy who were quite adventurous. There was alternative politics, alternative lifestyles and all kinds of stuff and all kinds of different music and technology bursting out. We got the first ever sampler. It was inbuilt sounds, but it could only take six sounds. It was very primitive. In the course of those concerts, at that time, I used the first radio mic in rock n’ roll. I’d fly from the ceiling, with my head on fire. Also, I met an artist in the communal place I was staying, who was into paganism and all the symbols of that and all the mythical traditions of the world. So I started wearing the capes and gowns and it all came together gradually.
Sam: Your original incarnation of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown show had a real Faustian theme running through it. Was that in your head when you were putting together the act?
Arthur: Well there were two inspirations really. One was my interest in tribal stuff and there were a lot of TV documentaries about African tribes and they’d show this footage of African witch doctors and their mask and their dance.
Sam: I can see the influence of that in the way you would paint your face and that voodoo dance that you do.
Arthur: Yeah. I looked to them and learnt from that and used what I could. I did my version of it. Also, our drummer had a whole collection of African music on records, and we used some of those rhythms into The Crazy World. But also, I had quite an interest in Japanese Noh Theater, which was very ritualistic theater with masks. But a lot of it was a product of the residual tension left over from the Second World War. My family had been through the war, and the first house we lived in, which was a big hotel from my mother’s half, was bombed and reduced to dust. So we moved to another house, and that was also reduced to dust. We a had a few family members killed. So by the end of the war my family was fairly traumatized. A few family members were killed. So my family was pretty tense with PTSD. But my father was kind of an adventurous man, and also very interested in the different areas of the human spirit. So, one day, when I was about twelve, I came home and I found another bicycle in the front hall, and I said “What’s that for?” He said “I’ve brought a man home that is going to teach you how to empty your mind, because I know you are having a hard time in this family.” But it meant by the time that I got to the age where I was writing songs, where most of the songs were about cars and women and all of that, I was more interested in what went on beneath the surface. All the fire stuff had to do with that. The fire had to do with the unconditioned spirit. That became the imagery for that first stage act. It was very shocking. It was a departure from every day thinking.Sam: There truly wasn’t anything that looked or sounded like anything like the music you were creating. You were such a departure from your contemporaries like The Beatles or The Who. When you were listening to the radio and you suddenly heard that scream – “I AM THE GOD OF HELLFIRE” – it was jarring.
Sam: When you were doing your act, did you have a lot of people who didn’t get it? Did you get a lot of push back?
Arthur: Well a lot of people got very upset. Some people got very violent. We had our equipment kicked down the stairs. We had people jump on the stage to beat us up. Some people didn’t get it. They resented it. Some people, like members of the Hells Angels, would say to us “So you think you’re the god of hellfire, do you?” On the other hand we had people who thought we were Satanic. There were a lot of people who thought it was so strange, because in England it was the beginning of the underground scene, and they were so used to straight forward pop music that didn’t ask questions. They’d hear us and go “What?” We had them storm the stage. I had to get out of the floor of a van so nobody could see me and find me. We had people run up and punch me on stage in the middle of a song. I wouldn’t see it coming and next thing I’d know I’d be waking up on the floor with blood pouring from my head. It was just a very strange time.
Sam: Were you at least a bit of a tough guy? Could you defend yourself?
Arthur: I’m not a street fighter, but I remember on time where a promoter came up to us and said “Why don’t you just go home. Here is the money. Don’t play the second set.” I said “We came all the way from the South of England up here to the North so we will play.” So he took me out to the balcony and he said “Look. See those people down there? They are going to storm the stage in the second part of your act and they want to destroy your equipment and beat you up. I don’t want that, so why don’t you go home.” I said “No. We came to play so we’ll play.” So I went upstairs and I found a glass case with a fire axe. It was silver, double headed Viking axe with the curved blade. It was a very fearsome looking blade. So I went on stage with that, with my makeup and my head on fire and waved the axe at these people and they didn’t dare come on stage. (Laughs) Not until we got off anyways. We were in our dressing rooms and they tried to break down the door and we had to escape through the back window.
Sam: It’s just a testament to how you were doing something so interesting. I mean, this type of stuff wasn’t happening to Herman’s Hermits.
Sam: So who were your fans? Obviously you had a fan base.
Arthur: Well for one thing we became popular with the hippie audience. It was the beginning of all that, so I originally became credited as a hippie. But when Fire came out it was not exactly a hippie thing. So we had the support of the hippies, but the punks who later came on liked us. The intellectuals, because Fire and the album and the show were thoughtful, gave us a lot of support. We got the support of people who liked wild dancing and rhythms. So it was the more progressive people who liked us.
Sam: Do you feel like you were ahead of your time? I mean a few years later heavy metal would happen and the guys like Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin were doing the exact same thing you were.
Arthur: It’s been said that my place in music has been to be kind of a pioneer of theater and shock rock and gigantic stage performances. Well, gigantic in those days. It wasn’t gigantic like it is now because now they have technology that can take it a lot further. Yeah.
Sam: Well I know performers like Alice Cooper, Marilyn Manson and Bruce Dickinson have cited that you were a huge influence on them. You can see the influence of your stage makeup and costumes in groups like KISS, The Misfits and Kings Diamond. Do you often hear from performers like these in regards to your influence?
Arthur: (Laughs) When I first met Bruce Dickonson, which was in 1994, the first thing he ever said to me when I walked into the room was “You will never know how many millions I’ve made out of what I’ve copied from you.” He’s always been totally honest and has made his own way with it, and developed it in his own way. It’s nice that something valid came out of what we explored. It’s cool. For me it was almost like a shamanic ritual show in a certain way. The fact that it developed in all those directions, but not have had that same root or intention for the act, is interesting. Initially I thought “Oh goodness” but then it’s all for entertainment. But I’m astonished to find that the hippie philosophy and language has become incorporated into heavy metal as a result.
Sam: In which ways would you say that that has happened?
Arthur: Yeah. All that gothic past and lots of English poetry. Those big romantic worlds. Lots of that imagery was from there.
Sam: Let’s talk about the big head dress that you would wear, which you would set on fire. Who built it? Where did you get it?
Arthur: It started as a crown which was really made out of really hard cardboard with candles on it that I found in the hotel in Paris. But that burnt out by the time I got back to England. So I got a vegetable colander and wore it upside down, and the candles were on it. But the wax used to come through the little holes and would get stuck on my hair. So we put a pie dish on top of it with petrol in it, and a strap around my head and under the chin. But that wobbled and I would get burns. So we ended up putting wings on the side. This was all developed with an artist friend of mine called Mike Reynolds. He lives in Canada now. Well, then we put on the pagan horns. Some people thought they were horns of the devil, but they were actually supposed to be the horns of Pan. So that was metallic, and we had the petrol in there, and we’d put strips of webbing up the horns and put com gum on them. We’d put cow gum on them, which actually had a really disgusting smell. But the flames would go quite high. The flames could get up to six feet up from my head. However, I don’t use that headdress much these days.
Sam: You know I have to ask this one. There is a famous story about your head catching fire during a performance. Is that true or an urban legend?
Arthur: Yeah. It did catch fire. That was in 1967 at the Windsor Jazz Festival. People poured their beer on me to put it out. There were also times where my clothes caught fire, and times where my clothes caught fire. Yeah. It’s dangerous. It’s not an easy thing to, especially if you’re dancing as well. You have to try to keep your head still and just move your body.
Sam: It’s amazing that you didn’t hurt yourself worse, or kill yourself.
Sam: You folded up The Crazy World after one album and then eventually moved to a new project called Kingdom Come. Was that a natural move for you?
Arthur: Well in 1968 Fire was a hit in the United States, and things there were a lot different than they are now. I would get off stage and there would be fourteen people in my hotel room. They’d talk themselves in, because things were a bit more free form. Because of the nature of Fire they may ask me questions about life and death and the meaning of everything. I would give them all these great answers. (Laughs) But one afternoon I sat down and I realized that I didn’t actually know anything about these things and I was really quite ignorant. So my decision was to go out and find the answers to these things. I started a spiritual journey through all the different traditions of the world and took things from them. So that changed my attitude towards a lot of things. I also took some LSD, which was what people did in those days, and that gave me some visions and experiences I suppose. So I didn’t really like the idea of hierarchal leadership anymore. So I decided in my next band that I didn’t want to use all the theatrics, and I don’t want to use costumes or masks or do a stage act. So I formed another band I had called Puddletown Express which was an experimental band and I’d perform naked quite a lot.
Sam: Yes. I read about this. That act got you arrested, didn’t it?
Arthur: Yes. Well that was a little bit later in 1970. It really depended where I was performing. In France they asked me not to do the nakedness by the French communist party. In England I didn’t seem to have any problem. The band was an improvising band, so it was kind of the opposite of The Crazy World. But The Crazy World kind of just wound itself down. It’s kind of hard to keep an act like that going financially. Well Puddletown Express was a little too radical for people who came expecting Fire and all of that. But we were down in Glastonbury with Dennis Taylor, and I went off and did a kind of vision quest thing and decided that it had a choice between going to a Tibetan meditation center, or starting a new band as a way to move forward spiritually. I decided to go with the band. So I told Dennis about this and he said “What are you going to call it?” I thought about it and said why not call it Kingdom. He said “Well if you are going to call it Kingdom, why don’t you call it Kingdom Come?” So we did. Then we kind of brought people into the studio and tried out various musicians together. We just improvised and put out what came from it. From that came one complete song of the first album. A song called Sunrise. Then we just spent three months rehearsing every day, all day and all night, and wrote the rest of the album which was basically all the kind of expirations of the sixties. What happened when it met the world of guns and money.
Sam: Are you still on that spiritual journey? Did you ever find the answers?
Arthur: Well, all of those traditions have answers to everything. If your very lucky you’ll find, in amongst the “so called” teachers, and there are lots of them, you find someone who kind of goes beyond all of that. It takes you to where there is no journey and no answers. You end up living in the moment.
Sam: You continue to be active. You are still performing music. I saw a video of you doing a recent performance in a Goth club and the kids are going crazy with what you do. It’s amazing. Is it wild to go into these clubs and have the kids get into what you do?
Arthur: Oh yeah. These young people are open to experiment, open to new ideas and open to energies. It doesn’t really matter to them what band is there, as long as the energy is there. That’s what they respond to, and especially if they can dance. There is something real about it, and they respond to it. It’s lovely for me. I’ve got a young band now and they have a kind of different attitude to music. Because I’m with them, I’m absorbing some of the younger values of music and finding that it is a great adventure. I love finding new music
Sam: Well there are so much interesting performances featuring you on line. There are acoustic performances, and a lot of blues influenced stuff. Such a departure from the way audiences might initially think of you. Again, it’s all very recent. You seemed to have disappeared during the 1980’s and 1990’s. Were you making music at all during this period? Was there a time where you didn’t make music?
Arthur: Yes there was. I got married to a lady from Texas, where things are big and wild. We went to live there after we spent some time living in Africa.
Sam: Wow. From Africa to Texas. That’s a wild change.
Arthur. Yeah. (Laughs) Yeah. Well Texas seemed fairly tame compared to where we were in Rwanda. They were just having the first wave of slaughters there, so Texas seemed quite sane. But now when you look at with the rattler snake churches where they prove that they love Jesus by bending down and picking up a poisonous snake. The rodeo guys who are completely wild. Yeah. It’s an interesting place. But we had a son there, and I was more interested in bringing up the family. So I took up carpentry and had a house painting company. I kept doing music on my own. I wasn’t so much into the industry or the touring though.
Sam: What got you back into touring?
Arthur: After a fair amount of time doing the painting company, my then wife was about to become principal of this spiritual university and we had classes together. So that kind of led into doing counseling and I became a qualified therapist with a degree and everything. But I decided not to do the traditional counseling and instead relied on people writing improvised songs and jingles. That was quite successful, and I was transplanting into the federal prison with really good results.
Sam: Wow. That must have been wild.
Arthur: (Laughs) It’s not what they normally do in prisons. (Laughs) But I was in that sort of phase of improvisation with music, and I went over to a friends and she said that I should go and play Glastonbury. So I put together and American band and we went over there and I hadn’t played in years. Well it went over well, and we kept touring for a couple of years. But during one performance in a very hot club, during a performance of Fire, I got a brain hemorrhage. That finished that particular band. I was out of commission for a couple of years. While I was recovering I had to be out of the heat of Texas, so I came back to England. Well after a couple of years I tried to gig with some local bands, and I realized I was okay. I eventually came back in and I did a pretty heavy regime of touring up the hills and getting my strength back. I’d sing every day in a church. The vicar said “Yes you can sing here, as long as you don’t sing that Fire song.” It was a wonderful small church where my voice sounded incredible.
Sam: Well that would really bring out that banshee wail that became a trademark of yours. Arthur, where did that scream of yours originate from? It’s so unique, and so haunting.
Arthur: Lots of bands screamed, but I knew that I could actually sing in that register. I could not just scream, but sing in that voice. So I had taken classical lessons, and I just practiced singing in that register and found a way to do it. I’d imagine that note and just practiced and practiced until I did it.
Sam: It’s just a haunting sound that rips through the ear drums. I know you’ve worked with so many rock icons. You worked with Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Alice Cooper, Frank Zappa. Do you still stay in contact with other musicians?
Arthur: Some of them. It’s really more or less when you bump into them. My so lives in Austin, Texas and I go there every year at Christmas. Last Christmas I just happened to be crossing the road and I ran into Robert Plant.
Sam: What’s Robert Plant doing in Austin?
Arthur: He lives in Austin now. Well, he invited me to his Christmas party. I keep in touch with Peter Gabriel, and I bump into Jimmy Page occasionally. It’s like that really. They are not part of my daily life, but you go to awards ceremonies and you see them all again. If you got a friend and you don’t see them in thirty years, it doesn’t matter. You pick it up.
Sam: I read that you have been doing speaking engagements throughout England now. Is that a new type of gig for you?
Arthur: I am developing it so it’ll be a two person thing, and there will be some music in it as well. It’s not just sit down talk. I tried the sit down talk and its okay, but it’s nicer if there is music. The little touches and details come out in the stories. It’s like sitting around a fire with friends. Even if you heard the stories before it doesn’t matter.
Still considered to be underground nearly fifty years after his success with Fire, in recent years Arthur Brown has embraced his title of the godfather of shock rock. Now in his early 70’s Brown continues to make appearances throughout Europe bringing his brand of sinister mirth to both old and new audiences. However his message still rings true. He still wants to teach us to burn. Although he primarily stays close to home in Europe, Brown will be bringing his act for a brief stay in Las Vegas in the summer of 2016. Don’t miss your chance to see a true rock n’ roll pioneer and a fascinating performer. For more information on Arthur Brown and his crazy world visit his web-site at http://www.arthur-brown.com/
It’s been a couple of years since I caught up with LA based film maker Ansel Faraj. When we first spoke he was just about to release his feature length supernatural horror film Doctor Mabuse: Etiopomar, the sequel to his successful 2013 film Doctor Mabuse, starring Jerry Lacy. In the years that have followed, Ansel’s Doctor Mabuse films have been very good to him, helping to put him on the map of the independent horror and fantasy film scene. His dark and provocative films have gained their own unique following, especially via fans of the gothic soap opera Dark Shadows who have supported the films due to the appearances of many DS alumnus’s including Jerry Lacy, Kathryn Leigh Scott, Laura Parker and Christopher Pennock.
The collaboration between Ansel and Jerry has proved to be so successful that they have teamed up again for a brand new original film, The Last Case of August T. Harrison. Released in late 2015, the film is a very original supernatural thriller in the Val Lewton style, which combines crime noir with HP Lovecraft lore. Jerry Lacy plays August T. Harrison, an aged detective who investigates a missing persons case, only to get trapped into a dark world he never knew existed, and discovers that the mystery falls closer to home than he thinks. A carefully crafted thriller, The Last Case of August T. Harrison is another triumph for Ansel Faraj.
Appearing throughout film festivals in 2015, horror fans can see The Last Case of August T. Harrison this year at the Depth of Field International Film Festival, Other Venice Film Festival Los Angeles Independent Film Festival, Hollywood International Moving Pictures Film Festival , Los Angeles CineFest , Wiper Film Festival, The Silver Scream Film Festival and the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival.
I was pleased to be able to talk to Ansel about The Last Case of August T. Harrison. Having been sent a copy of the film, I was captivated by it and noticed the evolution of Ansel’s style, both as a writer and a filmmaker, in this remarkable film. Although spoilers came up in our discussion, we were careful not to give anything away – especially in regards to the remarkable conclusion of the film.
Sam: So how long ago did you finish The Last Case of August T. Harrison?
Ansel: We finished shooting at the end of 2014 and finished it up in early 2015. We started it on the festival circuit in late 2015. It came out at Vimeo on Demand in November, but we are still doing the festival circuit.
Sam: With the film having been finished for a while, are you still excited about this film or are you gearing up for the next project.
Ansel: No. I actually feel that this is just starting. We shot it a year ago, and now that more people are able to see it I am even more revved up to promote it and talk about it because I know it’s a good film.
Sam: You received high praise for your Doctor Mabuse films, which really put you on the map. What has the reception for this film been like?
Ansel: It’s been a bit of a slower build this time. Doctor Mabuse was a known property, and it was the first time that the Dark Shadows actors had come back together for a film. So that was a novelty, and I wasn’t aware of the impact that it was having. With this film, it is an original concept. It deals with HP Lovecraft and his world, but August T. Harrison is my original character. It’s also not Dark Shadows centric, although it does star Jerry Lacy. I feel like I’ve been pushing more for this film, but I’ve just started pushing harder now that it’s more readily available.
Sam: I really enjoyed your Doctor Mabuse films, but I really noticed the evolution in your storytelling in this film.
Ansel: Thank you.
Sam: What was your initial inspiration for August T. Harrison and the story?
Ansel: Well, I had done the two Mabuse films with Jerry Lacy, and Jerry and I get along very well. It’s so wonderful working with Jerry. We are always on the same page. Well, when we were doing the premier of Doctor Mabuse in San Diego, Kathryn Leigh Scott said to me “You’ve got to do a noir. A full on detective noir with Jerry Lacy. You’ve got Humphrey Bogart.” I thought that it would be cool, but that was in 2013. We did the second movie, and then I was going to do another film called Todd Tarantula, but that didn’t work out. So I needed to do something where I can take a hold of my existing resources and do something grounded and realistic instead of something as opposed to the fantasy of Mabuse. So what’s my best asset? It’s Jerry Lacy. Kathryn’s suggestion came back to me and I’ve always been a fan of Lovecraft. So I thought what would be cool is to do a film noir mixed with HP Lovecraft. I knew Jerry would play the part. I’d write for his voice, because he has such a great voice. When we were doing the Mabuse films the dialogue is pretty crazy, but he makes it work. I knew that I needed that voice over to really give the insight to his slowly fractured mind. I just wrote this really sad guy living in Venice, California.
Sam: I thought your use of Venice to be very interesting. Do you live in or near Venice?
Ansel: Yeah. I live on Venice Boulevard. Venice Beach is just five minutes away.
Sam: I loved the way that you used Venice. It got me very nostalgic for Venice and Santa Monica.
Ansel: So you do understand the weirdness of Venice. It’s a very oddball area.
Sam: So what do you love about Venice?
Ansel: Well, as I said, it’s an odd little area and it’s very atmospheric in a cinematic way. Orson Welles used Venice in Touch of Evil for the Mexican border town. Where we were shooting was in the same intersection that Welles filmed that. Being an LA kid I try to scout as many LA film locations as I can. Especially old LA because we have horrible track habit of destroying our old buildings. But Touch of Evil was a huge influence along with Curtis Harrigton’s Night Tide, which are both set in Venice. And then you add Lovecraft – you’ve got the beach, you’ve got the water. You remember in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button how they said that a story like that could only happen in New Orleans because there is a certain type of magic there? Venice has a certain kind of magic too it, and although Lovecraft is East Coast and Venice is West Coast, it would work.
Sam: I love the fact that you never really see the monster, but you can hear it and see a tentacle here or there. It was a really Val Lewton type effect. Was that intentional or was it a matter of budget?
Ansel: It’s a bit of both. As I’ve said, I needed to use my immediate resources, and I’ve always loved Val Lewton’s films. The Seventh Victim and The Leopard Man in particular. They aren’t supernatural based but they have this really great sense of atmosphere in a city environment. So I always wanted to make a film in the Val Lewton mode, and this was a perfect opportunity to work in that tradition. There is a nod to it in the scene in the canal, and Jerry can hear something following him, and then the car comes along. That was a direct reference to Cat People with the bus. And Val Lewton had very restricted budgets himself. All the sets were reused from the RKO films.
Sam: Well you do that very well. Where did you find the rest of your cast?
Ansel: Jerry, Nathan Wilson and I cast the film. We spent September through November 2013 looking for actors to play Elenora, Jason and Drake. Jerry, Nate and David Graham came from Doctor Mabuse, so they just carried over. I worked with Lisa Richards in Theater Fantastique. But everyone else we cast. We were looking for a younger woman than Maggie Wagner to play the role of Elenora. Originally she was supposed to be in her late 20’s, but it seemed that we saw every young actress that had ever come to LA to make it, and none of them I could quite believe. I realized I needed someone with a little more maturity. Someone who lived a little more. So I met Maggie Wagner at the Actors Studio. Christopher Pennock introduced Maggie to me. There is a quality about her that is Elenora to me.
Sam: I agree, and she looks like one of the type of characters you’d meet at Venice Beach!
Ansel: Yeah (laughs). She had a really tricky way coming in. The way that the schedule worked out, we started filming without an Elenora. We started filming in December, but Jerry had to do the Dark Shadows cruise in January and we couldn’t pick up until the end of January. So we had the three days for the Elenora, and the way we shot the film she had to play her scenes backwards. It’s very complicated because you’ve got to work with one certain process and then go backwards into being a “nice character.” She was fantastic at it! There were really subtle things, and she brought a lot of humor into it. I am so impressed with the way she did it.
Sam: Let’s talk about the film’s ending. Of course I don’t want to give away the ending, but it was one hell of an ending. In an age where we’ve seen everything, it’s difficult to create an effective twist ending. Did you have that ending in your mind from the beginning of filming, and what sort of reaction have you gotten from the audience to it?
Ansel: The ending actually was originally much darker than I had planned. It was a bleak Lovecraftian ending. Well Jerry was reading the script and discussing it, and we knew that it wasn’t going to work. So I started thinking that I might need to do a happier ending for once where things work out. So it was hard to make the ending work out without being schmaltzy. So with the atmosphere of the film, and the fact that everything is off side and implied and that we’re never quite sure what’s happening that I decided it would be a supernatural story. Then it all sort of clicked. But it took a lot of time to get there, and I took a lot of input from the actors. David Grahame gave some input. Jerry gave some input. My Dad actually gave me a lot of input. He said “Nobody wants to leave the theater depressed.”
Sam: Well, even as the movie is winding down, you realize you like the characters and you want them to be okay. It’s such a good ending!
Ansel: There’s a funny story. Bill Wandell, who is the film’s composer and has been working with me for quite a while, saw the film and said “Ansel! That’s such a great ending! I can’t believe people survived!” I said “Well believe me; I had an ending where I could have destroyed these people.” He was pretty amused with that, because he’s used to my bloody downbeat end of the world endings.
Sam: When you show it in cinemas, how is the audience reaction?
Ansel: Everyone is usually taken aback. The way that Jerry plays it there is about fifty emotions that runs in his eyes in that scene. Everybody is on the edge of their seats. Everyone is usually very enthusiastic, and then they want to know if there is a sequel.
Sam: Is there a sequel?
Ansel: No. They need to have their happy ending.
Sam: What are you working on now?
Ansel: Well, last year I did a short film called Whatever Happened to Detective Adam Sera. Adam Sera is a comic book character I created in high school and I’ve been writing stories about him for a while. We’re going to do a second one, and hopefully we’ll be filming soon. Because I started working with the Dark Shadows group repeatedly, I wanted to do something that was very much my own and have no Dark Shadows connection. Just to see what I could do on my own. Adam Sera got a good reaction. I’m going to try to keep that tradition with this series at least.
Sam: You have been successful doing horror and fantasy films, and now you’ve worked the noir element into that. Are you planning on sticking to these genres?
Ansel: Well, I do want to do other things. One of my all-time director heroes is Robert Altman, and he dabbled in every kind of genre. I’d love to do a musical. A crazy, psychedelic rock n’ roll musical. I’d like to do an action film. I’d love to do a Batman movie. I don’t plan to stay in this particular genre. I’m just going to just roll with and see what happens.
A talented young writer and director with a mind that doesn’t stop working, Ansel Faraj is the future of horror and fantasy. Well versed in the history of the medium, Ansel is a man with a love and understanding for the medium, and has an uncanny ability to bring interesting people together to create his dark fantasy’s on screen. I’m excited to see what comes next from the dark corners of Ansel’s mind. For more information on Ansel’s projects visit the Hollinsworth Productions web-site at http://www.hollinsworthproductions.com/.
Gene Okerlund has had prossibly one of the most unusual careers in pop culture history. Instantly recognizable to those who watched wrestling in its heydays of the 1980’s, the small statured balding man was thrown into the room to interview the towering titans of the ring. As a result, there isn’t anyone who Gene Okerlund didn’t work with. With his warm yet authoritative voice, and through much bewilderment, Gene was part commentator, part ring master and part straight man to massive personalities and egos, as week after week he listened to the stars of the wrestling world rant, rave, threaten and scream about what they would do to their opponents. Well, somebody had to do it, and Gene has made a career in this strange world for over five decades. As a result, he was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2006, and was given a lifetime contract, without ever having a chair broken over his head or being thrown down on the matt.
Starting in radio in Minnesota, Gene began his career as an on-air wrestling personality when he replaced Marty O’Neil in the AWA (American Wrestling Association) in 1974. Featuring the biggest wrestling stars of the era, Gene Okerlund got his chops talking with the wrestlers, and gained a reputation for his good natured personality, his sense of humor and his ability to maintain a sense of order in what was often a maddening environment. It was during his time in the AWA that Gene Okerlund met wrestler, and later rival commentator, Jesse “The Body” Ventura, who gave Gene the nickname “Mean” Gene, playing on the irony of Gene’s reputation for being one of the nicest guys in the industry. The name stuck, and fans would forever refer to him as Mean Gene.
In 1984 the AWA saw many of their top talent move over to the WWF, which was becoming a cultural phenomenon of the 1980’s and bringing the wrestling to a level of popularity never known before. Gene Okerlund followed over to the WWF where he became one of the most recognizable personalities of the organization. Appearing in multiple segments each week on the various programs across North America that ran WWF fights, Mean Gene would conduct the promotional interviews with the bravest heroes, the baddest heels and the biggest stars. Mean Gene knew them all, and he saw it all.
An icon of my youth, I had the great pleasure to do a brief interview with Gene Okerlund during a public appearance. However, with his handler giving me the eye and pointing at her watch, I only had minutes to ask the questions I wanted to ask. But a professional to the end, Gene Okerlund fit a lot in a lot in the time we had.
CONFESSIONS OF A POP CULTURE ADDICT PRESENTS
Sam Tweedle: You probably had one of the most unique jobs in the wrestling industry by interviewing all of the different personalities. How does one get a job like that?
Mean Gene Okerlund: Well, you’ve got to be connected. It wasn’t talent. I knew the right people in the right places, and as you would know being a media guy, I had a lot of pictures. They were compromising, and some people didn’t want those pictures seen. As a result, I got the best job on the block.
Sam: You had to deal with a lot of big personalities in your job. Who were some of your favorite guys to work with? The kind of guys that you liked to see when they came into the room to talk with you.
Mean Gene: There are quite a few guys who could meet that description. Guys that could really liven things up. I like to go by era. I started back in the ‘70’s with Mad Dog Vachon, Nick Bockwinkel, Andre the Giant…Bobby Heenan was even there. But, some of the old time guys like Killer Kwalski and Bruno Sanmartino were really big names back in the 70’s. But then it progressed to Hulk Hogan, Macho Man Randy Savage, Rowdy Roddy Piper, Mick Foley, The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin, Brett Hart, Sean Michaels. Where do I stop?
Sam: Where there ever any guys that actually sort of scared you?
Mean Gene: Yes there were some guys that scared me. One was a former British Empire Champion named Billy Robinson. The “late” Billy Robinson. He was a scary guy. He was very explosive, very volatile. Another guy was Tony Atlas. He was one of only two guys who ever laid a hand on me.
Sam: What do you feel the biggest moment in your career was?
Mean Gene: Well, I’d have to document it by event, but suffice to say I had a great run and the good part about it is that I’m doing today what I’ve been doing my entire life. I’m still working for the WWE, I’m hosting Vintage Collection and doing a lot of fan events. I’m doing what I like to do, and I’m working with people that I like to be around.
Sam: Have you ever thought about writing a book?
Mean Gene: Well, I just finished my second book. I’m going to write a third book one of these days. I’ve got the manuscripts locked in the lower left hand drawer of the desk in my office. As I look over the Gulf of Mexico from my window, I can be very creative. Add a little Jack Daniels and I have a very good memory. Mine would not just be another wrestling book. It would be a tell-all. It would blow the whistle on everybody!
Oh man. Imagine the stories that Gene Okerlund isn’t telling us….yet! Although he was friendly and very giving of his time, it was obvious that Gene was cautious not to ever say much about anything. Perhaps it was because of the lack of time that we had to talk, or maybe it’s because he is saving it for the book. But as he seems to make references to multiple times, he is obvious a man who knows a lot of secrets, which he hasn’t told yet. I mean, what did he mean about the “compromising photos?” Was he yanking my chain? I really couldn’t tell. Mean Gene is a man with a lot of possible secrets.
But Gene Okerlund lives up to his reputation. He truly is one of the nicest guys in the wrestling industry. There is a reason he was so successful at what he did. Behind that moustache and that smile, Gene Okerlund has intelligence; personality and charisma which helped him do a job which could be one of the most difficult gigs in media. Wrestling is a strange world, and it would take a lot of grit combined with a sense of humor to be so emerged in the industry like Gene Okerlund is. But when it comes to grit, Gene Okerlund has tons of it, which is what has made him the most unusual wrestling legend of all time.
Charlotte Rae was the den mother of the children of the 1980’s. Full of spunk and good advice, every kid wish they had someone as wise and understanding as Mrs. Edna Garret. Introducing her beloved character in the first season of the groundbreaking all ages sit-com Diff’rent Strokes in 1978, Charlotte Rae made Mrs. Garrett a television icon when she was successfully spun off in her own sit-com, The Facts of Life, from 1979 until she departed the series in 1986. Playing the house mother to a quartet of sassy private school girls, The Facts of Life was unique as it was one of the first television series to seriously, yet sensitively, focus on the issues surrounding modern young women growing up in the 1980’s. With a wide range of topics including grades, sex, boys, divorce, pregnancy, disabilities and rape, Mrs. Garrett was the calming, but quirky, voice of comfort for not only the girls of Eastland, but to the viewers who watched her each week on television.
Studying theater at Northwestern University in the 1940’s, Charlotte Rae had a desire to become a serious stage actress. However, through the influences of her friendships with future stars Paul Lynde and Cloris Leachman, she soon found success working as a comedic performance. Relocating to New York after graduation, Charlotte found work in such stage productions as Pickwick, Romeo and Juliet and Lil’ Abner. But when television hit New York like storm in the 1950’s, like most actors of the time Charlotte quickly found herself in front of the camera.
In 1961 Charlotte got her first series playing Al Lewis’ wife Sylvia Schnauser in the classic cop spoof Car 54, Where are You? Although the series would only last two seasons, it would be popular enough to make Charlotte Rae a favorite for writers and producers, which would create a direct line to eventually having the role of Edna Garrett created for her nearly twenty years later.
This winter Charlotte Rae, now 89 years old, released her new autobiography, The Facts of My Life, talking about her life on the stage and screen, as well as the personal trials that she in private. Written alongside her son Larry Strauss, Charlotte talks about her life on screen and stage, but also about her battle with cancer, caring for her autistic son Andy, and her heartbreak when she discovered that her husband, John Strauss, was gay in the 1970’s.
I had the great pleasure to talk with Charlotte Rae about her life, and some of the things that she talks about in her book. Although she didn’t reveal everything, careful to leave something for the readers, the two of us had delightful and fast paced conversation about her memories as an actress working on the stage, television and movies.
CONFESSIONS OF A POP CULTURE PRESENTS
Charlotte Rae: I love your name! Sam Tweedle!
Sam Tweedle: It sounds like a name you’d give a Muppet, doesn’t it?
Charlotte: (Laughs) Yes it does! I love it! It makes me smile!
Sam: Well you make me smile! I have so much I want to talk to you about! You were the den mother of my generation.
Charlotte: Yes. That’s true.
Sam: I watched you on Facts of Life every day after school and, if I remember correctly, Saturday nights. It was Saturday nights, wasn’t it?
Charlotte: I don’t remember. I’m 89 now.
Sam: But you know, another thing I remember you so fondly for was the film Hello, Down There! It is one of my very favorite childhood films.
Charlotte: It’s funny. The guy who accompanies me when I sing has written a musical stage show of Hello, Down There but he can’t get it off the ground.
Sam: That film had an incredible cast.
Charlotte: It really did. We all had a warm and loving time doing it. We did it down in Florida, and it was so beautiful down there. I was living in New York at the time, and I had my mother come down and visit me because we filmed it was in the winter time, and it was so nice in Florida. My mother was living in Milwaukee, so I got an apartment and brought my Mom down there and we all had a good time.
Sam: Now we are not here to talk about Hello, Down There. Let’s talk about your new book. How long did it take you to put together a book about your life?
Charlotte: If I had to do it by myself, it would have taken forever. I don’t think I would have done it. But my son Larry is a writer and he said “Mom, it’s about time. Let’s do it before you forget everything.” He’s written a lot of novels. Some of them have been optioned for a movie. He is also a teacher that works in South Central Los Angeles and he works with lots of Latino and African American kids and helps them get scholarships for college. He’s very involved. So he said “Let’s do it Mom.” It was wonderful. I remembered quite a bit, but there was lots of stuff I forgot to put in. But nevertheless, it’s a story about not only desperately wanting to be “a star,” but I also wanted people to know my real life. It’s been challenging, like most people’s lives. There’s the good stuff, and then the heavy duty stuff. I wanted them to know that I am still here, and so grateful to be here.
Sam: I read that you dropped out of college to come to New York to become an actress.
Charlotte: No. I graduated first. Patricia Neal dropped out and Cloris Leachman dropped out, but I did graduate first.
Sam: Yes. You were in college with Patricia Neal and Cloris Leachman, as well as Paul Lynde.
Charlotte: Oh yes! Paul and I graduated together.
Sam: It must have been wonderful to have all four of you in the same program together.
Charlotte: Well, Pat was a year ahead of us. But Cloris and Paul and I were in the same class. Cloris became Ms. Chicago and went to New York and never came back.
Sam: What year did you go to New York?
Charlotte: I graduated in June 1948, and in August Paul and I moved to New York.
Sam: What was it like to be a young actress trying to make it in New York at that time?
Charlotte: I was just gung ho and ready to go into all the offices and look for a job, and it was the dead of August and Cloris said “Charlotte, no one is in their office in the dead of August so just relax.” Sometime in the fall I think I got a job in a little bar called the Sawdust Trail, which was on 46th Street between Broadway and 6th Avenue. They paid me sixty bucks a week and I stood on the bar and sang, and then I went upstairs into the dressing room and then Teresa Brewer would come down and sing. Teresa was 16 and I was 21. There was a wonderful piano player, and old vaudevillians would wait on the tables and sing. We didn’t have to mix with the customers. Some saloons made you drink with the customers, but they treated us very nicely. It was so exciting because I was a half a block from Broadway.
Sam: Now initially you wanted to be a dramatic actress, but you became known as a comedian.
Charlotte: Yes. In college I wanted to do classical plays. I still love to do them – Shakespeare, Chekov, O’Neal. I wanted to be a real legitimate actor and do all the serious plays. I really had a lot of feelings and emotions and I wanted to project them in these wonderful roles. But when I was a sophomore, somebody said “Why don’t you try out for the musical?” I said, “No, I only want to do drama.” But Paul Lynde said he was going to try out for the musical, and he convinced me to go out with him. Well I did, and I got all these wonderful sketches to do. So I played it very seriously, and they were very well written and very funny. So Paul and I played off of each other, and we were called Lebowski and Lynde. There is a picture of the two of us as freshmen which Al Burton gave me, and I think it’s in the book. Paul was very chubby at the time, and I was kind of chubby too.
Sam: I’ve always had a real love for Paul Lynde.
Charlotte: He was one of a kind, and he had a great sense of humor.
Sam: One role that you originated on Broadway was the role of Mammy Yokum in Lil’ Abner. That show has become a staple, despite the fact that the comic hasn’t been published since the 1970’s.
Charlotte: Michael Kidd was the director and choreographer, and he did a wonderful job. It was a great cast, and a very satirical show. But I really was not interested in doing it. Mammy Yokum is a cartoon character. But I was the shortest person in the show. I was 5’2 ½.
Sam: How did you make the transition into television?
Charlotte: Well I loved the stage, but all of a sudden in New York television came around and I started to get invited to do things.
Sam: Were you doing a lot of the live shows?
Charlotte: I did a lot of that, and a lot of stuff on PBS too. Terrence McNally did this wonderful three part series for New York Television Theater that I did. The first one was called Apple Pie with Jimmy Coco, where he was signing up for the army. Then we did one called Bocce, and then there was one with John Becher and me called The Immovable Gordons where I played a mother on the verge of a nervous breakdown because my son was missing in action in Viet Nam. It was very heavy duty. We did a lot of things on public broadcasting, and then there were all these shows like US Steel and Play of the Week. Jack Klugman and I did one where we were boyfriend and girlfriend. He was a dear dear darling man.
Sam: Was Car 54, Where Are You? shot in New York or Los Angeles?
Charlotte: That was in New York. We did that show at the Biograph Studios, which is the famous old studio in the Bronx where Mary Pickford used to do her silent films. I used to be in awe because I thought maybe there was some dust left over from Mary Pickford’s days in that studio. I got into Car 54, Where Are You? after doing some appearances on The Phil Silver Show. I played in The Twitch episode where they made a bet to see how many times during my speech that I’d pull my girdle down. Nat Hiken, who write and created The Phil Silvers Show and Car 54, Where Are You? was an amazing talent. He should be in the hall of fame of comedy.
Sam: It seems the writing for sit-com comedy has changed so much. One man who is a true master of it is Norman Lear, and I know he had a huge part in your career. I’m in awe of Norman Lear.
Charlotte: I don’t blame you. When I was living in New York, Norman Lear and Ed Simms were partners and they were producing and directing and writing The Colgate Comedy Hour. I was on it once, and they knew me because they were living in New York. They eventually moved to Los Angeles, and when I moved out to California with my husband and my kid’s years later, they had me do an episode of All in the Family. I played a Tupperware lady for Edith. This is when Carol O’Connor was off the air because he was fighting for more money. This was an alternate script in case Carol didn’t show up. The episode was called Where’s Archie? Norman Lear was there, and there was a director there that wanted me to do this funny little thing where I had to pick my nose. Jean Stapleton, bless her heart, went to Chicago with me and Phil Donahue and Margo Thomas for a woman’s march. Then I did the series Hot L. Baltimore. Norman Lear loved that. It was with James Cromwell and Conchata Ferrell. Norman handled this gay couple in the hotel with such sensitivity. He was way ahead of his time.
Sam: It was amazing what Norman Lear was doing at that time. He was one of the first writers to write realistic gay characters, and to present them in a positive light.
Charlotte: Norman presented things in a positive way. In a sensitive way.
Sam: Obviously your relationship with Norman Lear brought you into Diff’rent Strokes. How many seasons did you do Diff’rent Strokes?
Charlotte: Just one. I thought I was going to get fired!
Sam: Why did you think you were going to get fired?
Charlotte: Well, it was a male dominated environment. The directors were wonderful, but the writers and producers were another thing. Norman wasn’t involved too much with that show. They never made me feel like I was important or relevant for the show. I want to warn young people that sometimes they do that because they don’t want to give you a raise. They don’t want you to think that the audience likes you and that you are doing a good job. But I really thought I was going to lose my job because in one episode I only had twelve lines. Then, when I only had twelve lines, Al Burton was beckoning me in between shows, and I thought “This is it. They are saying goodbye.” Al said that Fred Silverman is here and he remembers you from Car 54, Where Are You? and he wants to spin you off on a series. So Fred Silverman wanted to know everything about Mrs. Garret and her background, her history and everything and a very wonderful writer, Roland Barber, had proposed to Al Burton and Norman Lear that I be a housemother to a co-ed dorm. They said they were not interested. So then they said, how about a house mother to all girls. I had just gotten my divorce, and it was wonderful. I could have stayed on with Diff’rent Strokes, and I had a wonderful deal that if The Facts of Life didn’t work out that I could go back to Diff’rent Strokes.
Sam: A few years back I picked up the first couple of seasons of The Facts of Life on a whim when I saw it for sale, and I was delighted to see how well the early seasons had stood up against the test of time.
Charlotte: Well, shows were filled with wisdom that you don’t get today.
Sam: Now in the first season of The Facts of Life there were way too many characters. Too much time seemed to be made in introducing who each girl was in every episode. The cast was cut down considerably in the second season to only four girls who would make up the primary cast throughout the rest of the run. How did they decide who to keep and who to let go?
Charlotte: I don’t know. I really wasn’t involved as a producer, but I did discover Mindy Cohn and I did read with Nancy McKeown for season two and I wanted her to be in it.
Sam: As an adult rewatching the series, I realized that Mindy is my favorite of the girls. She is so funny and has so much personality.
Charlotte: I discovered Mindy at a real school. Al Burton’s daughter had gone to this school in West Lake Village and we visited the school which is where I met Mindy. She wasn’t an actor. She was just a student, but I kept asking her questions because she had that funny little voice and I thought “God, we need someone like this girl.” First of all, she was Jewish. Second of all, she was chubby. And third of all, she had a wonderful voice. She was witty and had personality. I think it was really gutsy of her to go on a coast to coast broadcast. What a challenge! She was just amazing. They did a lot of wonderful stories about Natalie. They did a story about divorce, and at one point they made the grandmother die and there was a death in the family, and getting all these things for the parents and children to see together.
Sam: The chemistry you had with the girls on The Facts of Life seemed to be more realistic and richer than the chemistry you had with the kids on Diff’rent Strokes.
Charlotte: I was only on that show for one year. The boys were so adorable. Dana Plato was flakey. But both of those boys had parents that were so self-involved, but I won’t go into it.
Sam: I used to love the episodes where the cast of Hello Larry would come over to visit.
Charlotte: Oh yes! McLean Stevenson went to North Western Collage as well, but that was after me and Paul and Cloris were there. He’s younger than me. McLean never should have left MASH.
Sam: Well, what made you decide to leave The Facts of Life?
Charlotte: I just felt that as the girls grew older, they didn’t really need me that much anymore. I was having less and less and less to do. As an actor, I was just standing around. It wasn’t enough, and as an actor there were so many wonderful roles to play on the stage. People would say to me “Get every nickel out of that series.” I just felt that I wasn’t needed the way it was in the beginning.
Sam: I felt that after you less the series, that’s when the series lost its magic. What was the reaction amongst the cast and crew when you said you weren’t coming back?
Charlotte: They loved me, and they didn’t understand, but I just had to move on. They offered me a lot of money to stay. It would have added up to millions. But I don’t know. I just felt that it was important to move on. How many pair of pants do you need? At that point of my life I wasn’t interested in being a big star anymore. I was interested in doing work and not just saying “Come on girls, let’s eat dinner” or “Pass the salt.”
Sam: Edna Garrett became such an iconic character; did you face any typecasting when you tried to move on from that part?
Charlotte: I don’t know, but one of the roles I loved playing afterwards was in Driving Miss Daisy. It’s a wonderful play, and I think I’m the only Jewish woman who has done it. I loved that role. Then I did a very challenging role by Samuel Beckett. It’s called Happy Days, but it’s not very happy. It’s about a woman, Winnie, and I got wonderful reviews. Dame Peggy Ashcroft said that the role is a challenge like Hamlet is for a man.
Sam: So by leaving The Facts of Life, you were able to finally pursue the kind of roles that you wanted in college? That’s fantastic, isn’t it?
Charlotte: Yes it was. So that was wonderful. I also did a lot of benefits, and some singing, and some cabaret work again, like I did early on in my career. I’ve been able to travel and have a lot of fun. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Sam: Your book isn’t all about your moments in show business though. There are a lot of more serious aspects to your life.
Charlotte: Well, my son Andy has autism, and having a child who is challenged in many ways, mentally and physically, was a very agonizing but enriching experience. It was filled with joys, but it could sometimes be hard. I talk about my battle with pancreatic cancer in the book. And my husband, John Strauss, and finding out that he was gay. We became very good friends afterwards, but it was very hard on me at the time. I felt very inadequate as a woman, but when you look at the whole picture you begin to understand what he must have been going through. I have compassion to him. I finally met the guy that he partnered up with.
Sam: Was that an interesting experience for you?
Charlotte: It was, but they became part of the family. They were always part of the holidays. That’s the way it was, and my kids were very accepting and loving.
Sam: That’s wonderful. So you really cover a lot of things in the book.
Charlotte: I do. It’s been quite a life I have. I’m just so thankful that I am still here to enjoy it!
Charlotte Rae is everything that you would want her to be. She is funny, witty, wise and sharp. I could have spoken to her for hours, and obviously, with a career as long and vried as the one she has had, there are hundreds of more stories to tell in her book, The Facts of My Life. I really didn’t get to ask nearly half the things I wanted to know. But what Charlotte Rae left me with was a certain glow, as if I just had a heart to heart with a dear friend from my childhood. Whether she realized it or not, Charlotte Rae was a mentor to an entire generation of kids who grew up in the 1980’s. When we couldn’t, or didn’t want to, listen to the wisdom of our parents and teachers, we always had Edna Garrett giving us words of wisdom to use instead. Television characters from our childhood become like old friends from the past, and Charlotte Rae was amongst the best friend any kid could have.
PCA NOTE: Special thanks to Harlan Boll for arranging my visit with Charlotte Rae. It was a career highlight to visit with this icon from my childhood, and thank you for giving me that opportunity. For information on Harlan Boll Public Relations visit his site at http://bhbpr.com/.